Micro-Adventure: Port Vendres

July 7, 2015 we decided to visit the nearby harbor town of Port Vendres (Vond-rah). Okay, to be honest we meant to go to Perpignan, but after getting up at 5:30 am we still missed the 6:50 am bus. The Perpignan bus stops right outside our favorite patissiere, so we sat down for chocolate croissants and cafe kreme . . . then we decided to visit Port Vendres.

We try hard not to let those “oh crap” moments, like missing our bus, wreck our day and rather like to view them as a serendipity intervening to encourage spontaneous decision-making.

After enjoying our quick breakfast, our new destination planned, we walked back to the house and made the dog deliriously happy by letting her out of her crate hours earlier than usual. We grabbed her red plaid “bus bag,” a requirement for all dogs riding on the 1 Euro buses, her water bottle and her leash and headed to the bus stop for the 400 bus to Port Vendres. A short 1.3 kilometer walk from the house.

Taking the 8:18 am bus, we arrived in Port Vendres by 8:35 am. The short ride was more than enough for Sami who hates her bus bag almost as much as she hates being on the bus! We got off at the first of three stops the bus makes in Port Vendres wanting to see as much of the town as possible. We walked down the hill from the cemetery, crossing traffic a couple of times as sidewalks came and went, ending up at the north end of the harbor and the obelisk. We stayed for a while taking photos and watching people purchasing the morning’s catch from small vending stalls stationed along the edge of  the harbor.

From the north end of town we headed into the city center by way of the sidewalk across the street from the harbor looking for the tourist office. All along the harbor were ornate street lamps that had 12″ x 8″ black and white framed photos of the harbor’s history. We stopped around 9 am needing to sit down and cool off for a minute. The mornings bright sunlight and the city’s excellent humidity had made us all quite thirsty. We passed by two war memorials along the way. One for free French and British pilots who were lost during WWII, the other a memorial for French soldiers lost during the war with Algeria.

While enjoying a cold drink and the shade from the sidewalk cafe, we watched a sailboat leave the harbor for a pleasant day at sea. The older couple who owned the boat made the business of backing out, turning and leaving the boat parking look like a small, simple exercise while we both know that neither of us could have done so with such ease and gracefulness.

While watching the couple leave the harbor we commented on the beautiful clock tower that was opposite us on the south side of the harbor. The older looking tower seemed to grow out of the top of a more modern building. We later found out that the clock tower was original to one of the three redoubts (forts) that made up the harbor defense in the late 1600s as the harbor city was turned into a naval base under the rule of Louis XIV by Vauban.

There were a couple of old cannons along the sidewalks, remnants of the city’s older defense system. The sidewalks were decorated with red bricks the design blending into the scenery in such a way that it enhanced the look of the street. Along the side streets we noticed nothing but stairs, a very pedestrian area for sure explaining why the main road along the harbor was so busy. It reminded us both of time spent walking around San Fransisco. Alan mentioned that once you left the harbor area there was nowhere to go but up.

While we were sitting, an older gentleman sat nearby and ordered a small beer, followed by an elderly lady who sat in the far corner who also ordered a small beer. It was about then than Alan realized he had also ordered a cold beer at 9 am. Apparently this is not uncommon and, in fact, appeared to be a local custom.

Finding the tourist office was easy enough, signs are posted pointing the direction and giving the distance. The nice young lady inside spoke beautiful English with a British accent and was more than happy to supply us with a city map, directions to the nicer beaches and point out that all of the main city sights (buildings and monuments) were denoted on the map in yellow, while other sights of interest (forts, lighthouses, trailheads) were numbered. We asked if any of the beaches allowed dogs, they don’t. Sami was slightly disappointed as she truly loves the beach. After thanking her for her assistance, we went out front and found an empty bench to review the map and decide what to see first.

I wanted to see the fort, Alan the lighthouse. We decided to do both even though they were on opposite points of the harbor. We are training for the Camino de Santiago so long walks are not really an issue. Making sure Sami was hydrated, we headed across the street to follow the pedestrian trail out to the lighthouse.

The trail out to metal pier lighthouse on the breakwater was approximately 3 kilometers. Passing by several fish and seafood restaurants which the city is known for, we eventually left the “tourist” area and found ourselves passing by the commercial district of the harbor.

Port Vendres is different from the other sea-side cities along the Côte Vermeille. It is a rocky, deep-water harbor that can handle both commercial freighters and cruise ships. It is a typical Mediterranean fishing port as well and we saw fishing boats coming and going alongside pleasure craft and sailboats throughout the day. There was one enormous freighter parked next to the industrial cranes used to remove shipping containers from freighters. It was nearly emptied of its cargo.

Leaving the commercial zone, we followed the pedestrian path past a supermarket and gardening center. The entrance to the gardening center had a number of old wooden boats stacked up to one side and just beyond that were train tracks that lead to nowhere. On the hill above the supermarket were the ruins of what looked to be an old factory of some sort. The small, sharply-pointed, four-sided roof at the top of the main structure was almost completely caved in on the side facing us.

We eventually came out to a camping area where tents and trailers were scattered all over. Camping here is quite different than in the U.S. Though most of the camps have areas for RVs and tents many of the spaces are filled with small mobile homes that are basically turn-key mini apartments in wooded areas. These were no different.

On the opposite side of the street was a closed up building that had once been a nice sea-side resort called Les Tamarins. Four stories and a terrace that overlooked the deep bay. There was a small sandy beach to one side that some swimmers were enjoying.

I had to shake my head that there were swimmers there at all. The water of the harbor was beautiful with the rainbow hues of oil on the water. I couldn’t believe anyone would willingly swim in that water. At the next beach up the path, I noticed a stack of towels and a bottle of laundry detergent. I couldn’t help but wonder if someone was using the detergent to keep the oil off while swimming or just planning to do laundry on their way back to the camp.

The path turned off the road and headed up along the rocky coastline of the small bay. We began noticing old bollards, rusted and set into the large, black rocks along the shore. I began to see the images from the street lamps, old cruise ships full of well dressed people and could imagine the boats tied up to these rusting bollards. Along the trail there were a couple of old cannons which were part of the port defense system at an earlier time in history.

As we climbed a bit higher we spotted an older man who was clearing ignoring the “No fishing” signs posted around the bay. I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone would fish in oil-coated water, but noticed later that many others were ignoring the signs as well.

Just beyond the law-breaking fishermen was the remains of what appeared to be an old terrace area belonging to a house higher on the cliff. The stone steps leading up to the house were filled with debris and looked like they hadn’t been used in a century or two.

A few minutes later we descended into a parking lot for a restaurant. It was built right next to the water and apparently opened for lunch from 12:30 to 2:30 and then later in the evening for dinner. There was another small beach next to it with a few more swimmers.

Just beyond the restaurant was another old fort structure and on the hill opposite the street were the ruins of a round battlement. It’s hard to tell which period they were from but the round structure was clearly older. The area has been inhabited since the Iron Age and was at one time inhabited by the Romans. The city gets its name from this era, the Romans called it Portus Veneris after the goddess Venus. Such a long history makes trying to identify old ruins a bit difficult for those who don’t know the area’s history well, but they are always interesting to look at and we stopped for a few minutes and took turns holding Sami’s leash to take some photos.

The trail followed the road for a few hundred meters and came out to a parking area opposite yet another small beach with more people enjoying the sunny morning. Just beyond the beach was the breakwater and the lighthouse. The side of the breakwater facing the harbor was a solid, wide, cemented area with a huge cement wall. At the end of this cement platform was a small four-legged lighthouse.

More fishermen ignored the posted warnings and lined the edge of the cement platform with all manner of fishing equipment. On the opposite side of the 10-foot wall were the beautiful gold and red boulders that give the area its name, La Côte Vermeille.

While sitting on top of yet another large, cement platform and taking photos of the colorful rocks against the green water, Sami saw Alan and took off to meet him. The handle of the leash was snatched out of my hand, following Sami. It had enough speed and weight to go right over the edge near the largest boulder leaning against the cement wall. It fell down about six feet and got stuck under yet another large rock. Alan had to climb down between two large boulders to free the leash. Sami had the decency to look like she was sorry . . . for about 3 seconds . . . before heading off to explore another interesting scent.

By now it was about 11 am and we headed back toward the harbor to have some lunch before checking out the other side of the bay.

Once we made it back into the “tourist zone” we found a nice sidewalk cafe for lunch. Our selection of restaurants had nothing to do with food and everything to do with the amount of shade available. Selecting one with a nicely shaded dining area and sitting at a small table in the corner we ordered lunch. I had a salad with tuna, potato and mushroom garnished with slices of tomato. Alan had his favorite the moules et frites, or mussels and fries. The mussels here come with a variety of cooking options. Alan normally has the mariniere cooked with wine and onion, but other offerings were garlic, bleu cheese and one called Banyuls style. We didn’t have a clue what that meant but later found out it refers to a delicious red dessert wine. Banyuls-sur-Mer is a little further south of Port Vendres so we’ve decided to visit there soon and try the moules et frites Banyuls style while we’re there.

After lunch, we headed off to the north end of the harbor, stopping again at square housing the obelisk. The obelisk square is part of a larger area with a garden and domed building. Military barracks used to be situated here and the Dome used to be the head of the regiment’s house. Today it’s an exhibit hall housing a permanent exhibition by Charles R. Mackintosh, who brought the city to life on his canvas through watercolor.

The obelisk was erected by the Comte du Mailly under the direction of Charles De Wailly, architect and painter to the king. The first stone was placed on September 28, 1780, by Mailly’s wife, Felicite de Narbonne Pelet. The event was witnessed by much of the Roussillon nobility. The obelisk is adorned by four bronze bas-reliefs representing the newly independent United States of America, the abolition of serfdom in France, free trade and the strengthened French Navy. In commemoration, the Fete de Mailly takes place every September. It features a fancy dress parade through the streets followed by a re-enactment of the placing of the first stone, circus workshops, historical games, rides in a carriage, Xim Xim concert (featuring traditional dance music of central France), Catalan ballet, enactment of a pirate fight, jeu de foulard (bandana game), and more. We will be in Spain in September but will try to attend in 2016.

Heading down the staircase we walked along the water’s edge looking at the fishing boats and trying to keep Sami away from the small fish vendors stalls that were already closed for the day but still full of enticing smells and the small hope of something edible. Sami does tend to think that all walks are like a trip down a buffet line, it is a constant battle to keep her from eating everything she stumbles across. I keep thinking that non-English speaking people think her name is “Don’t Eat That!”

Alan spotted a pretty little fountain next to the staircase with a beautifully carved marble fish. I don’t often like French sculpture finding it far more parochial than my favorite Italian sculpture but can still appreciate any well executed design. I found the fish sculpture fascinating. None of my photos turned out though, Sami was helping point out the need of anti-vibration on my iPod by constantly tugging on her leash. I had a few odd photos of a blurry marble fish when I finally downloaded my photos to the laptop.

Just up the ramp to the sidewalk was the church of Port Vendres. Notre-Dame de Bonne Nouvelle was built in 1888, with a curious mixture of Romanesque-Byzantine facades and, according to the city’s website, has Neogothic touches in the very high nave. We didn’t go inside however as dogs are not allowed.

Continuing up rue de la Mirande we came to a fork and took the lower rue Arago, called “rue du soleil” or sunny street, stopping at what we thought might be a restaurant, but may have been the fish auction hall. Realizing that we couldn’t go further because the next area was an industrial area, we turned at went back up the hill to rue de la Mirande to get out to the fort.

Rue de la Mirande has beautiful old homes, a few more contemporary, and all of them draped in flowers. At the end of the street was the Redoute du Fanal and just beyond on the headland facing the sea was a statue of Notre Dame de Bonne Nouvelle. The original bronze statue was replaced by a lighter one in resin sometime in the past and more recently someone added an empty wine bottle to the Madonna’s arms. We chose not to shoot the statue’s full length.

The fort was closed but we were able to follow a winding stone stairway to the base and wander around the harbor side. Redoute du Fanal dates back to the late 1600s. The architect was Vauban, Sebastien Prestre, Marquis de Vauban was an engineer, architect, military planner, hydraulics engineer, and French essayist. He was appointed Marshal of France by Louis XIV. La Redoute du Fanal was built between 1673 and 1700 for the defense of the port and part of Louis XIV’s plan to turn the area into a naval base. The green lantern lighthouse marks the harbor entrance. In 1780 the light of the lighthouse had a range of more than five leagues. Though it still marks the harbor entrance, there is also a modern light set in the shallows below the fort.

Taking a moment to sit on the short wall overlooking the cliffs and water below we checked on Sami’s feet and tested the heat of the asphalt before heading back down the hill.

Upon returning to the harbor area, we stopped back at the same restaurant where we took a break in the morning. Ordering cold drinks and sitting at one of the umbrella topped tables. We noticed that the same old guy from our first stop was sitting at a table next to the street, drinking another beer.  A few minutes later the sailboat we had watched leave was heading back in and parking. Is it called parking when it’s a boat? Well, they parked the sailboat just as we were finishing our drinks. It seemed like the day had come full circle, so we headed to the bus stop.

The bus took us as far as Port Argeles and we walked the 3.1 kilometers home. Stopping in the tourist area of Centre Plage for Alan’s new favorite ice cream. A sorbet made with poire (pear), which was surprisingly refreshing and light. We took turns sharing a bite with Sami and made it back home about 40 minutes later.

Along the way we passed a mirror someone left propped against their fence obviously meant for the trash. Sami was very interested in the MinPin who appeared right before her eyes, then looked behind the mirror to see where it went!

Sami immediately laid on the couch in front of the fan and slept for about 90 minutes. All-in-all we walked just over 12 kilometers (approx. 7.5 miles) and Sami did just great. We are hoping to continue taking her along while we explore other nearby cities accessible via the 1 Euro buses. Next trip will be Banyuls-sur-Mer, probably tomorrow.

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Second Renewal of Our Residency Permits (Cartes de Séjour) Part 2

Continued from Second Renewal of Our Residency Permits (Cartes de Séjour) Part 1

While we were doing our final preparations to move from Carcassonne to Argelès-sur-Mer, we received an e-mail from our future landlord that our letters from the Préfecture des PyrénéesOrientales notifying us that our Cartes de Séjour (residency permits) were ready for pick-up. We decided to wait the until we completed our move before we would go to collect our new cards. It had taken the Préfecture about three weeks to officially approve and produce our new Cartes de Séjour.

We moved to our new residence, unpacked, settled-in, completed and submitted our US tax return, shopped for kitchen basics, found the local open-air market, got to know Argelès-sur-Mer’s public transportation system, met a couple from Collioure for drinks, and even hosted friends overnight who were on a vacation through France.

We sorted out the “€1 Bus” schedule to Perpignan and left early on a Thursday morning with the documents the notification letter said were required:  our passports, current Cartes de Séjour, €106 payment each in timbres fiscaux (tax stamps), and the notification letter.  I double-checked the letter and we headed to the Préfecture des PyrénéesOrientales in Perpignan.

"Le Bus à €1" - Conseil Général Pyrénées–Orientales
“Le Bus à €1” – Conseil Général Pyrénées–Orientales

The trip went flawlessly . . . almost.  We correctly figured out the regional bus schedule from Argelès to Perpignan, we remembered the path from the station to the prefecture without error, we successfully planned enough transit time to enjoy a leisurely cup of café crème in a nearby cafe, and we were waiting at the right door when the immigration office opened for business. We were feeling very pleased with our skills navigating life as “strangers in a strange land.”

However, I made the embarrassing and very rookie error while reading our notification letters and mis-translated “mercredi et vendredi” (Wednesday and Friday) as “du mercredi au vendredi” (Wednesday through Friday.) That day was, of course, a Thursday. So we spent the remainder of the day exploring Perpignan, took photos, enjoying a nice lunch before catching the bus back to Argelès.

The next day, Friday, we repeated our inadvertent “trial run” and returned to the Préfecture des PyrénéesOrientales in Perpignan.  This time everything did go flawlessly.  We enjoyed our morning café crème, was near the front of the line when the Préfecture’s immigration opened, and the receptionist gave us the first two numbers to be called to the service windows.  Tracy had our documents well-organized and our immigration official very professionally processed our forms and payment and issued us our new Cartes de Séjour with receipts complete with digital photos should we lose our cards.

Carte de Séjour and Receipts

It took eleven minutes from walking into the Préfecture to walking back out with our new Cartes de Séjour tucked in our wallets.  We are now all set for another year of living in France.

 

Carcassonne – Ten Photos From Walking Around The Neighborhood

Ten photos taken “just walking around the neighborhood” in the Ville Basse (the lower city) of Carcassonne.

Antique "No Parking" sign on a garage along Rue Jean Bringer.
Antique “No Parking” sign on a garage along Rue Jean Bringer.
Menu board from Lard et au Cochon restaurant on Rue Denisse.
Menu board from Lard et au Cochon restaurant on Rue Denisse.
Spring flowers in the market.
Spring flowers in the market.
Menu board from Briocherie-Pâtisserie Arpin on Place Carnot (the town square).
Menu board from Briocherie-Pâtisserie Arpin on Place Carnot (the town square).
The solar eclipse through the clouds at the fountain and Porte des Jacobins à Carcassonne (Jacobin Gate).
The solar eclipse through the clouds at the fountain and Porte des Jacobins à Carcassonne (Jacobin Gate).
Menu board from the wine bar, Lâche Pas La Grappe on Rue du Pont Vieux.
Menu board from the wine bar, Lâche Pas La Grappe on Rue du Pont Vieux.
The iron façade of wine bar, Le Verre d'Un, on Rue de Verdun.
The iron façade of wine bar, Le Verre d’Un, on Rue de Verdun.
Decorative stonework above the windows of a residence on Boulevard Barbes.
Decorative stonework above the windows of a residence on Boulevard Barbes.
Lamps at Place Carnot (the town square.)
Lamps at Place Carnot (the town square.)
Bee investigating a lily offered in the market at Place Carnot (the town square.)
Bee investigating a lily offered in the market at Place Carnot (the town square.)

 

 

 

 

Carcassonne – Nine Photos From Walking Around The Neighborhood

Nine photos taken “just walking around the neighborhood” in the Ville Basse (the lower city) of Carcassonne.

Full moon over the Cité de Carcassonne seen rom the Quai Bellevue.
Full moon over the Cité de Carcassonne seen rom the Quai Bellevue.
Entrance to the Hôtel de Rolland, the Hôtel de ville de Carcassonne.
Entrance to the Hôtel de Rolland, the Hôtel de ville de Carcassonne.
Sami the MinPin has a hero in the neighborhood. Another MinPin that rides with her Dad (a local insurance agent whose office is around the corner) on his motorcycle.
Sami the MinPin has a hero in the neighborhood. Another MinPin that rides with her Dad (a local insurance agent whose office is around the corner) on his motorcycle.
Tributes to victims of Nazi  atrocities.
Tributes to victims of Nazi atrocities.
Gare de Carcassonne (Train Station).
Gare de Carcassonne (Train Station).
Patrons enjoying the cafes in Place Carnot (the town square.)
Patrons enjoying the cafes in Place Carnot (the town square.)
House number on Rue Basse.
House number on Rue Basse.
Statue of Neptune above the fountain in Place Carnot (the town square.)
Statue of Neptune above the fountain in Place Carnot (the town square.)
Detail of René Phileas Carillon's "In Square for the Fatherland," also called "The Audois" (1912), Memorial of the 1870 War at Place Davilla.
Detail of René Phileas Carillon’s “In Square for the Fatherland,” also called “The Audois” (1912), Memorial of the 1870 War at Place Davilla.

 

 

 

Second Renewal of Our Residency Permits (Cartes de Séjour) Part 1

This year renewing our Cartes de Séjour (residency permits) had some additional complexity our first renewal didn’t.  (First Renewal of Our Residency Permit (Titre de Séjour and Cartes de Séjour Arrived To Help Celebrate Our First Year In France.) With this in mind we started the process in January although the permits do not expire until the end of March.

The issue we expected to deal with was that we were moving to the city of Argelès-sur-Mer during the same week that our current Cartes de Séjour expire. The new city is in a different department than where we currently live (a department is one of the three levels of government below the national level, between regions and communes.) These administrative levels of French government are roughly analogous as US states to French regions, US counties to French departments, and US cities to French communes. Because of the change in physical location we had the question, “Do we renew in our current department or at the one where we will actually be living for the duration of the permit?”

After double-checking with both prefectures (a prefecture being the government office that performs national level business at the local level – think visiting a “Federal Building” in the US) we learned that the Préfecture des PyrénéesOrientales would prefer to handle our renewal (although the Préfecture de l’Aude very kindly told us they would be happy to help and do the renewal if there was any problems.) So after two visits to the Préfecture de l’Aude and a couple of e-mails to the Préfecture des PyrénéesOrientales I was a finally able to request an appointment date.

"Take a Number"
“Take a Number”

We now knew “when” and “where,” the next step was “what.” Although immigration is performed by the national government, we have been told that there is some discretion at the individual préfet offices in issuing renewals for Cartes de Séjour. The Préfecture de l’Aude provides an in-house form and check-list of “what” supporting documents are required. Not knowing “what” documents the Préfecture des PyrénéesOrientales may require and in an attempt to avoid a four-hour round-trip train ride to Perpignan, I requested the correct renewal forms and check-list from that préfet by mail and by e-mail.  Yes, I know it’s redundant for both, but I wanted to make sure I received a response so that we had plenty of time to acquire all the supporting documents before the appointment. I’m sure anyone who has ever gotten turned away at a window at the Department of Motor Vehicles because of a forgotten document can relate.

The Préfecture des PyrénéesOrientales very promptly responded with a confirmation date for our renewal appointment, the renewal forms required, and a list of supporting documents that need to accompany the renewal application.  The forms themselves simply asked for identification information (i.e. name, date of birth, address, nationality, and such) and the required documents is a short list (the originals to be brought with us and copies to be attached to the application):

1. Current Carte de Séjour (residency permit) that is being renewed.

Carte de Sejour
Carte de Sejour

2. Passport with copies of pages with identification information, expiration dates, entry stamps, and visas.

3. Marriage certificate since our passports do not confirm marital status. This document was not specifically on our list from the Préfecture des PyrénéesOrientales but marital status was mentioned on the copies of passport pages.  A marriage certificate was also not on the required document list at our previous renewal, but was requested during that appointment. We always opt for the “better safe than sorry” theory so the marriage certificate was included with our application. We carry our dossier file to all government meetings, our dossier file is a binder-briefcase that contains all our important documents in case an additional document is requested.

4. Birth certificate.

5. Proof of the location of residency with a utility bill and our landlord’s identification information. Our new landlord was happy to provide that information as was our current landlord during last year’s renewal.

6.  Three recent passport-style photographs.  There are passport photo machines in a dozen locations around Carcassonne.  Photos are required with almost all government applications.

7.  €106 payment each in timbres fiscaux (tax stamps.)  The tax stamps are sold in specific Tabacs (tobacco and convenience stores.)

 Tax Stamps (timbres fiscaux)
Tax Stamps (timbres fiscaux)

8. Proof of financial independence equivalent to 12 times the monthly French minimum wage (in our case with bank statements and pension confirmation letter from the Nevada Public Employees Retirement System [NV PERS] as retirees.)

9. Sworn handwritten attestation not to exercise any occupation in France. (There was actually an attestation on the form that could be filled in.)

10.  Self-addressed, stamped envelopes.

All of these documents and items were then obtained over January and February. In several cases it takes a couple of weeks to process the requests plus transit time in the mail. Some agencies or companies will only mail to our “official” US address and then that document has to be re-mailed to us in France, which Tracy’s sister graciously handles for us.

Tracy (AKA the “Queen of Organization”) arranged and organized our applications exactly in the order of the checklist we were provided.  There was one folder for me and one for her in the event we saw separate officials rather than together as a couple. (We have so far always had “couple” appointments.)

Carte de Sejour Renewal Paperwork
Carte de Sejour Renewal Paperwork

On our appointment date of March 2 we traveled by train the 114 kilometers (71 miles) to Perpignan.  Since this was the first time we have visited Perpignan, we built-in a “cushion” of extra time in order to locate the Préfecture des PyrénéesOrientales, do a bit of sight-seeing, and enjoy a leisurely lunch before our appointment.

The train trip included beautiful views of the snow-capped Pyrénées mountains and flocks of pink flamingo on the salt marches between Narbonne and Port-la-Nouvelle

Préfet des Pyrénées-Orientales, Perpignan.
Préfet des Pyrénées-Orientales, Perpignan.
The Bassa river and the Castillet in Perpignan
The Bassa river and the Castillet in Perpignan

Just before our 2 pm appointment, we went to the Prefectures’ information desk to check-in. A very friendly staff person (speaking both French and English) explained that renewal office was located around the corner at a Prefecture annex in the Hôtel D’Ortaffa. Once we checked in at the reception desk, we were directed to a waiting room and we noticed immediately that there was an electronic display board with numbers and the other patrons were holding number slips. I went back to double-check with the receptionist if I needed a number. Another patron kindly explained to Tracy that there were two waiting areas, one with check-in numbers and a second with appointments to be called by name. Tracy called me back from the reception desk and we moved to the second waiting room. It is always little things like this that seem to cause us the most confusion.

Hôtel D'Ortaffa, Perpignan
Hôtel D’Ortaffa, PerpignanAfter a

After a twenty-minute wait we met with our immigration representative, a very patient woman who spoke no English.  Almost immediately the discussion about “issues” with our renewal applications started.

The first issue:  We are moving to Argelès-sur-Mer the day after our current Cartes de Sejours expire. This means we are moving between departments. Our representative first believed that we needed to apply for our renewal in Carcassonne. I was prepared with the e-mail in which I had previously confirmed where to apply for renewal. That seemed to fix the problem quite nicely.

Second issue: We had no proof we were living in Argelès-sur-Mer. Of course not, we haven’t moved yet. However, once we produced our current rental agreement and receipts she shook her head and mentioned that our stuff from Carcassonne didn’t work there. We then pointed out the address for the upcoming residence. Our representative pointed out that the residence was described as a “holiday” property. We indicated the arrival and departure dates on the lease. Our rep ran upstairs and had her supervisor approve it. She came back smiling and saying, “Okay, Okay.”

Third issue:  Normally residency is proven with a utility bill in the name of the applicant. But with the Argelès-sur-Mer rental property, like our current home in Carcassonne, the utilities are in our landlords’ names. We produced a copy of the utility bill for the Argelès-sur-Mer property and a copy of our new landlord’s passport as the utilities holder. Our new rental home is a form of duplex. The landlord lives on the opposite side of the property with her entrance on a parallel street opposite from our entrance. The two units have the same number, but use different street addresses. The utility bill, although it is for both properties, is mailed to the landlord’s address. After many attempts in our limited French to explain the architecture of the buildings, Tracy solved the concern with a quick sketch of the two unit’s adjacent floor plans. Oddly, that seemed to work just fine.

Fourth issue:  Our pre-addressed envelopes for pick-up notification were made out to our current Carcassonne address. (We assumed that notification would come prior to the 30 days we had before we moved.) Our representative insisted that the address be changed to the new address and kindly provided “white-out” tape for Tracy to change them. We are hopeful that we will have mail upon arrival.

With those issues resolved, the representative accepted our renewal applications for final approval, took our digital fingerprints to confirm our identities, and prepared our Récépissés de Demande de Titre de Séjour (receipt of application for residency permits) that serve as temporary Cartes de Sejours.

Surprise fifth issue:  Although the Prefecture’s checklist for the application asked us to bring three passport-style photos each, our representative needed four photos to complete the application process. Easy to fix, we always keep extras in the dossier.

Our representative had us sign our paperwork, issued us our Récépissés de Demande de Titre de Séjour, and advised us that once we received our notification letters we needed to return with our timbres fiscaux (tax stamps), passports, and Récépissés de Demande de Titre de Séjour to collect our Cartes de Sejours for 2015-2016 with our new Argelès-sur-Mer address.

Récépissés de Demande de Titre de Séjour 2015
Récépissés de Demande de Titre de Séjour 2015

Success! Although we were getting apprehensive in the middle of our meeting, our representative handled everything with relative expediency. Relieved, we happily walked back to the Perpignan train station with our Récépissés tucked safely inside our dossier.  There was even time for a celebratory beer at a café before we boarded the train back to Carcassonne and start packing for our move.

Our biggest lesson: if there is any confusion in terminology. i.e. vacation rental, or addresses that don’t match for utility bills, it needs to be addressed prior to the appointment. A lot of the confusion could have been easily resolved with a letter from the landlord that indicated the dates and duration of our stay, that it would be our permanent address during those dates, that she owned both properties and covered them under one utility bill, and that our utilities were included in the rental price.

Next: Second Renewal of Our Residency Permits (Cartes de Séjour) Part 2

Transferring Money Between the US and Europe

Tracy and my retirement system requires pension payments be made into an US bank, so we have a logistical issue of how we get funds to France. Also, being on a fixed-income, we want to get money to us in France in the most cost-effective manner possible. Everyone has seen bank service charges and ATM fees quickly add-up over time, bleeding funds from bank accounts that we would rather keep for ourselves.

Euros Currency
Euros Currency

Contrary to my original expectations before we moved overseas, there are no “global banks” in the US.  There are international banks like Barclays, HSBC, Halifax, UBS, and Deutsche Bank with branches in the US, but you cannot deposit money in an US branch of an international bank and simply withdraw funds in another country without fees. Banks in the US are state and federally regulated and are separate legal entities from their European home branches.

1.) Currency exchange before leaving. When we still lived in the US and would travel internationally, we would pre-order foreign currency ahead of time so we would have the local money when we arrived at our destination. Our US bank is Bank of America and its online banking web site has a link to easily order foreign currency.  Larger orders of foreign currency would be shipped and held for pick-up at the local bank branch. The exchange rate is good and a request took just a couple of days to fill.  Doing the exchange before leaving let us have the local currency in our pocket for immediate needs like eating and transportation. Carrying more than $10,000 by a family into or out of the US has to be reported to US Customs and Border Protection. (Currency / Monetary Instruments – Amount that can be brought into or leave the U.S.)

2.) ATM.  If you are already in Europe, one of the easiest way to obtain local currency is at a bank’s ATM machine.  (Make sure before to leave on your trip you give your bank a travel notification that will be making purchases abroad so the bank won’t disallow foreign transactions because of “suspicious activity.”  Also be aware that many international ATMs accept only a four digit PIN, the PIN may not be able to start with “zero,” and often the keypads will not have letters – only numbers.) Most US banks have specific “partner institutions” abroad that if you use their ATMs you can minimize fees.  For example, Bank of America’s current partner institution in France is BNP Paribas.  Bank of America’s foreign transaction webpage explains costs in greater detail:

“When you use a foreign ATM, you could be charged a variety of fees, including non-bank ATM usage fees, ATM operator access fees, and international transaction fees for conversion to U.S. dollars. One way to limit such fees is to use your Bank of America ATM or debit card at one of our international partner ATMs. This enables you to avoid the Non-Bank of America ATM $5 usage fee for each withdrawal, transfer or balance inquiry as well as the ATM operator access fee. Keep in mind that when you use your debit card to withdraw money from an international ATM, Bank of America will assess an international transaction fee of 3% of the converted U.S. dollar amount. Foreign ATM operators may offer to do your currency conversion for you, but they may charge a higher fee for conversion. You can refuse the foreign ATM conversion and be assessed the 3% Bank of America international transaction fee instead.”

BNP ATM
BNP ATM

ATM fees at a non-partner institution can add-up, but are still much more cost-effective than the rates at currency-exchange businesses or exchanging cash at a hotel desk. The currency-exchange businesses are notorious for poor exchange rates, handling fees, and very expensive commissions. A loss of up to a 1/3 of the value of your US money at a currency-exchange business is not unusual. Do not bring US cash to Europe with the intention of exchanging it at a local bank. When our son Casey recently arrived in Paris with US cash, he attempted to exchange US dollars at a couple of local banks.  The banks all referred Casey to currency-exchange businesses (with the resulting loss of value due to poor exchange rates and high commissions.)  The Paris banks only exchange foreign currency for their account holders. Even when I took the US dollars to a Paris branch of Tracy and my French bank we were told we had to go to a specific bank branch to exchange the funds. Once at that branch we learned the US cash had to be deposited into our French bank account and would be unavailable for withdrawal for week. I wondered if we could have exchanged the US currency at all if we weren’t in a major city like Paris.

3.) Credit and debit cards. Major credit and debit cards are generally accepted throughout Europe, while not always at small shops and cafes which may be “cash only” businesses.  It’s always smart to keep some cash in your pocket to avoid embarrassment. US credit card companies often impose a surcharges on foreign transactions and conversation fees for purchases made abroad.

While US cards nearly always work in European ATM machines, there is sometimes the issue of whether or not a business can accept an US “swipe and sign” credit card because the “chip and PIN” “smart” EMV cards have been the norm in France for 20 years and the rest of Europe for almost as long. Some European businesses point-of-sale devices, lack the ability to “swipe” a current US credit or debit card. Tracy and I will normally use our French cards for European purchases and US cards for US businesses to minimize foreign transaction fees. US banks and credit card issuers have started to issue “chip and sign” “smart” debit and credit cards at the customer’s request.  We have updated all our US credit and debit cards (Visa, MasterCard, American Express) to “chip and sign” “smart” cards to broaden where our cards can be accepted in Europe. The European “chip and PIN” cards from US issuers will be coming several years in the future as US businesses have to first upgrade their infrastructure to accept “chip and PIN” cards.

"American Express smart card"  by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:American_Express_EMV_card.jpg#mediaviewer/File:American_Express_EMV_card.jpg
“American Express smart card”
by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

4.) PayPal.  We have occasionally used PayPal to transfer money “person-to-person” to our adult children in the US.  We have found it convenient to send money by PayPal so that an adult child can access funds almost immediately.  (i.e. Payday is tomorrow, but a car tire needs to be replaced today.)  It is simple for the recipient to transfer cash from a PayPal account over into their checking account.  There is no delay compared to mailing a check from France to the US or waiting more than a week for a bank transfer to process.  There are zero fees for us to send money using PayPal, but the fees for receiving money from one US account to another US account, up to $3,000, is 3.4% plus $0.30.  So sending $100 on our end will be $96.30 when it arrives at its destination.  We have also used PayPal to transfer a “first month” deposit to a landlord in France. PayPal 5.) International Wire Transfer.  Tracy and I have been using wire transfers to move more substantial funds from our US bank to our French bank account.  (Getting A French Bank Account.) International bank wire transfers are reliable, safe, and in our experience they takes 7 to 10 days to process.  Bank of America’s Online Banking web site has all the links to transfer money by wire to an oversea bank account. To set up the first wire transfer we had to request from our French bank its “Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication – Bank Identifier Code” (its SWIFT-BIC number) and “International Bank Account Number (its IBAN number)” to correctly receive the money in our French bank account.  After the initial wire transfer our Bank of America web site retained the SWIFT-BIC and IBAN information for future transfers. As additional security for transfers larger that $1,000, Bank of America will also provide two-factor authentication with a SafePass card.  The SafePass card will generate a six-digit one time use code number that is used to authorize an online wire transfer request over $1,000.  With Bank of America there is a fee of $35 to send a wire transfer.  At the “other end of the wire,” BNP Paribas will charge us €18 to accept the wire.  Depending on transfer rates, there is a cost of about $55 to send yourself money with a wire transfer. Built into the wire transfer is an additional cost because the bank uses the premium currency exchange rate which is much less advantageous than the mid-market, interbank exchange rate you see posted to currency exchange rate sites like XE or on Google.  That can add up to a 5% additional cost to a transaction because of the bank’s premium “adjusted exchange rate.”  Our goal was not to have transfers every month so we can minimize the transfer fees.  Like visiting the ATM machine, it is better to pay for only 4 or 6 transfer fees a year rather than paying for a monthly wire transfer.

Bank of America SafePass Card
Bank of America SafePass Card

6.) Peer-to-Peer Transfer  While we have had no problems with the wire transfer, we are always looking for ways to reduce our transfer costs further. We have started using London-based financial company TransferWise as our P2P money transfer service in the place of a bank wire transfer.  The process is simple to perform online and funds have been available for us within five days rather than the 7 to 10 we previously had with bank wire transfers. TransferWise is sometimes referred to as “the Skype of money transfers” because one of its founders, TaavetHinrikus, who was one of the original members of the Skype development team. TransferWise has been providing Peer-to-Peer money transfer services since January 2011. TransferWise is a registered money service business with the British Revenue and Customs department and fully authorized by the UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) as a payments institution.

TransferWise Logo
TransferWise Logo

UK newspaper the Guardian named TransferWise as a “A Foreign Currency Exchange Service With A Twist – It Doesn’t Exchange Any Money” and a top innovator for 2015.

“TransferWise is making inroads as a foreign exchange service, with a twist: it doesn’t exchange any money. Instead, it pairs people who want to get rid of a currency with those who want to get hold of it. If Alice in the UK sends £10 to Bob in Ireland and at the same time Charlie in Ireland sends €12 to Diane in the UK, then the money doesn’t cross any borders at all; Charlie just sends his money to Bob, and Alice sends hers to Diane. That lets the firm slim its fees down to a minimal level, charging less than £5 to send £1,000 overseas.”

TransferWise eliminates currency conversion fees and international transfer fees for clients.  The start-up company has $58 million in investors as of January 2015.  In its first four years of operations, TransferWise has transferred roughly $4.5 billion through its platform saving users about $200 million in banking fees usually incurred when moving money abroad.

Peer-to-Peer Money Transfer. "Transferwise" by Shaviraghu - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Transferwise.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Transferwise.jpg
Peer-to-Peer Money Transfer. Credit: “Transferwise” by Shaviraghu – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Transferwise.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Transferwise.jpg

With a $2,000 transfer we save the $35 fee sending a wire transfer from our US bank account, the € 18 fee receiving the wire into our French bank account (about a $55 saving), and we get the midrange exchange rate from TransferWise rather than the lower “bank adjusted” exchange rate which is a hidden cost to sending a traditional wire transfer.  TransferWise charges €1 or 0.5% (whichever is larger) in an equivalent amount in the customer’s currency. TransferWise makes its profits with exchange volume, reduced infrastructure, and avoiding the fees inherent in international transfers. And it is a growing business model, there are now other P2P currency exchange companies including CurrencyFair, MidPointKantox, and PeerFX.

Any other issues?

Traveler Cheques.  Traveler Cheques are pretty much obsolete and it’s difficult to find businesses that want to accept them.  ATMs and debit cards have replaced the Traveler Cheque in Europe.  I understand Traveler Cheques can still be useful in visiting China.

We keep a close eye on Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) issues. Congress passed FATCA in 2010 to deter tax evasion by making it more difficult for U.S. taxpayers to conceal assets held in offshore accounts by international shell corporations.  The law requires foreign financial institutions to report to the Internal Revenue Service about their US clients’ accounts.  The unintentional side effect of the law has been that rather than deal with the costs, additional paperwork, and potential penalties by the US government, many European banks have elected to close the accounts of US expats. (Time Magazine: Swiss Banks Tell American Expats to Empty Their Accounts, The Guardian: ‘I was terrified we’d lose all our money’: banks tell US customers they won’t work with Americans, Forbes: 10 Facts About FATCA, America’s Manifest Destiny Law Changing Banking Worldwide.) So far BNP Paribus is keeping us as customers and providing good service for us.

Recently, there has been several major international banking scandals which may impact us and other expats with the resulting new banking regulations. (The Guardian: HSBC files show how Swiss bank helped clients dodge taxes and hide millions.  Business Insider: Now RBS employees need to be worried about the Swiss tax evasion probe.)

That is a peek at the complexity of our financial lives as expats.  It’s a “moving target” for us trying to stay on top of the rapidly evolving global financial picture.

Carcassonne – Twelve Photos From Walking Around The Neighborhood

Twelve photos taken “just walking around the neighborhood” in the Ville Basse (the lower city) of Carcassonne.

Stained glass window in the 13th century Carmelite Chapel.
Stained glass window in the 13th century Carmelite Chapel.
Door bell chain at the front door of a home on the Rue de Verdun.
Door bell chain at the front door of a home on the Rue de Verdun.
A café espresso in the Bar Tabac de la Poste on the Rue Barbès.
A café espresso in the Bar Tabac de la Poste on the Rue Barbès.
Ornamental lintel above the entrance to the offices of the Diocèse de Carcassonne et Narbonne (Roman Catholic Diocese of Carcassonne and Narbonne).  The Diocese was established in 533.
Ornamental lintel above the entrance to the offices of the Diocèse de Carcassonne et Narbonne (Roman Catholic Diocese of Carcassonne and Narbonne). The Diocese was established in 533.
The flags of the European Union, France, and the Languedoc-Roussillon region above the entrance to Hôtel de Rolland, an 18th century hôtel particulier which is now the Mairie (town Hall)  on Rue Aimé Ramond.
The flags of the European Union, France, and the Languedoc-Roussillon region above the entrance to Hôtel de Rolland, an 18th century hôtel particulier which is now the Mairie (town Hall) on Rue Aimé Ramond.
Ornamental lintel with the bishop's coat of arms above the entrance to the offices of the Diocèse de Carcassonne et Narbonne (Roman Catholic Diocese of Carcassonne and Narbonne).  The Diocese was established in 533.
Ornamental lintel with the bishop’s coat of arms above the entrance to the offices of the Diocèse de Carcassonne et Narbonne (Roman Catholic Diocese of Carcassonne and Narbonne). The Diocese was established in 533.
Decorative gate into a courtyard along the Rue de la Gaffe.
Decorative gate into a courtyard along the Rue de la Gaffe.
Rain water falling from the mouth of a gargoyle on the side of the Cathédrale Saint-Michel de Carcassonne.
Rain water falling from the mouth of a gargoyle on the side of the Cathédrale Saint-Michel de Carcassonne.
Chou vert (green cabbage) offered for sale in the open-air market in Place Carnot (the town square.)
Chou vert (green cabbage) offered for sale in the open-air market in Place Carnot (the town square.)
Ornamental lintel above the entrance to Hôtel de Rolland, an 18th century hôtel particulier which is now the Mairie (Town Hall)  on Rue Aimé Ramond
Ornamental lintel above the entrance to Hôtel de Rolland, an 18th century hôtel particulier which is now the Mairie (Town Hall) on Rue Aimé Ramond
Multicolored lights illuminating the front of the Musée des Beaux-Arts (Museum of Fine Arts.)
Multicolored lights illuminating the front of the Musée des Beaux-Arts (Museum of Fine Arts.)
The antique sign above the entrance to the former Hôtel Dieu (God's Hotel)  which was built in 1772 as a city hospital.  The hospital was demolished in 1977 and all that remains today is the entrance gate and Le Dôme, the former bell tower to the hospital's chapel.
The antique sign above the entrance to the former Hôtel Dieu (God’s Hotel) which was built in 1772 as a city hospital. The hospital was demolished in 1977 and all that remains today is the entrance gate and Le Dôme, the former bell tower to the hospital’s chapel.

 

 

 

 

Carcassonne – Fifteen Photos From Walking Around The Neighborhood

Fifteen photos taken “just walking around the neighborhood” in the Ville Basse (the lower city) of Carcassonne.

Michele Rabat artisan boucherie charcutier traiteur (butcher shop) at the end of our block on Rue du Pont Vieux.
Michele Rabat artisan boucherie charcutier traiteur (butcher shop) at the end of our block on Rue du Pont Vieux.

 

Colorful doorway along the Boulevard Jean Jaurès
Colorful doorway along the Boulevard Jean Jaurès

 

The fountain and  Porte des Jacobins à Carcassonne (Jacobin Gate).
The fountain and Porte des Jacobins à Carcassonne (Jacobin Gate).

 

Building with traditional exposed "pan de bois" half-timbered framing on the Rue Georges Clemenseau
Building with traditional exposed “pan de bois” half-timbered framing on the Rue Georges Clemenseau

 

Tables ready for lunch patrons at the Brasserie des Platanes on Boulevard du Commandant Roumens
Tables ready for lunch patrons at the Brasserie des Platanes on Boulevard du Commandant Roumens

 

Le Fruitier (fruit and vegetable market) on the Rue de Verdun.
Le Fruitier (fruit and vegetable market) on the Rue de Verdun.

 

Looking up at the skylight and antique banister from the bottom of the stairway in our apartment building.
Looking up at the skylight and antique banister from the bottom of the stairway in our apartment building.

 

A keystone with the date "1675" on a building neighboring our apartment on the Rue Du Pont Vieux
A keystone with the date “1675” on a building neighboring our apartment on the Rue Du Pont Vieux

 

Clock above Ecole primaire Jean Jaurès (Jean Jaurès Primary School) on Boulevard Jean-Jaurès.
Clock above Ecole primaire Jean Jaurès (Jean Jaurès Primary School) on Boulevard Jean-Jaurès.

 

Hand-hammered horseshoe above a garage on the Rue Aimé Ramond.  In France horseshoes  are hung with the open  side down for good luck.
Hand-hammered horseshoe above a garage on the Rue Aimé Ramond. In France horseshoes are hung with the open side down for good luck.

 

PEP Maison d'enfants (PEP Childen Home) on the Avenue Pierre Semard.
PEP Maison d’enfants (PEP Childen Home) on the Avenue Pierre Semard.

 

Open-air market in Place Carnot, the town square.
Open-air market in Place Carnot, the town square.

 

Ironwork and lamp at the top of the arch of the Porte des Jacobins à Carcassonne (Jacobin Gate).
Ironwork and lamp at the top of the arch of the Porte des Jacobins à Carcassonne (Jacobin Gate).

 

Patrons enjoying the day on the terrace outside Le Petit Moka in Place Carnot, the town square.
Patrons enjoying the day on the terrace outside Le Petit Moka in Place Carnot, the town square.

 

Olive bar at the open-air market in lace Carnot (town square.)
Olive bar at the open-air market in lace Carnot (town square.)

Le Zinc

I like that a French colloquialism for a bistro, café, or bar is “le zinc” because of the classic zinc countertops that were common in pre-World War II France. Zinc countertops in cafés go back centuries in France.  The revered French author, Emile Zola, in his 1873 book “The Belly of Paris” used the expression “le zinc.” The slang phrase, “Rendez-vous à ‘le zinc’,” translates as “Meet me at the café.” So common were zinc countertops that there were even special soaps for cleaning “le zinc” followed with applying a coating of beeswax to protect its patina.

Although many zinc countertops in French cafés were confiscated during World War II by occupying forces with the metal being recycled into the Nazi war industries, you can still find vintage zinc counters.  It has even become fashionable for contemporary bistros looking for a historic ambiance to have brand-new “le zinc” countertops fabricated.

Zinc countertop at Brasserie Les Jacobins, Carcassonne
Zinc countertop at Brasserie Les Jacobins, Carcassonne