Paris and Beyond

Our Personal Tour de France & Other Exciting Adventures!

Archive for the month “August, 2015”

Let’s Flunch

imageSome of my favorite memories from our trip to France this summer involve doing especially non-touristy things which was, of course, our entire objective. We wanted to have as many natively French experiences as possible in order to begin to get at least a small sense of what it would be like to live there as a regular, every day citizen. These included dancing in the park, eating where the locals eat, shopping daily at the farmer’s market for our dinner, attending summer music festivals at small town churches, and experiencing the night market scene — all of which you can read about in previous blog posts.

The world has many perceptions about France. As you might expect, some of them are true and some are very stereotypical. Two topics that immediately come to mind are fashion and food. We have the impression that the French always dress in the latest designer styles and only eat at the best establishments — haute fashion and haute cuisine for everyone every day. Many French people do dress and dine in high style especially in Paris or other major cities. However, as we and others have said many times, Paris is not France and France is not Paris. The truth is that life is much more casual outside of Paris. And the reality is, it’s not practical nor affordable for the majority of the population to live that way.

During our two extensive trips throughout the country, we have discovered that the French live a more balanced and down to earth lifestyle than many might imagine. One excellent example of this can be seen at the indoor malls anchored by stores like Leclerc and Auchan, two of France’s largest retailers. People exit these stores with carts full of groceries and other items very similar to the way we commonly shop here in the U.S. And when they are in need of a quick, inexpensive lunch that will please and satisfy the whole family, there are cafeteria-style eateries like Flunch.

The Flunch cafeterias were launched in 1971 and currently, there are about 200 of them in France. The first time we saw one was when we stumbled into one of these mega-shopping centers in Toulouse in 2012. It struck me as rather curious that any French business would have such an English and rather unattractive sounding name, but I really didn’t pay any further attention to it at the time. Then, this summer, we stopped at Auchan to shop for some groceries in the Périgueux suburb of Marsac and there it was again. So we had to check it out and discovered that it was a great casual dining option. Flunch is only open for meals at lunchtime from about 11:30-2:30. Earlier in the day you can order coffee and a pastry and after the lunch hour, it’s most popular for its ice cream desserts which are still available. For lunch, you pick up a tray and choose from a variety of items which are set out on plates. In addition, you can build your own salad and/or order one of the 3-4 set meals of the day. Depending on your age, you might be reminded of smorgasbord or buffet restaurants in the U.S. It’s quite tasty and very economical. You can get a complete meal for about €10 ($11) which includes all-you-can-eat vegetables… keeping in mind that French fries are considered vegetables, that’s pretty cool. We hung out at Flunch several times during our trip. It was a very relaxing place to stay cool on hot days and get access to free wifi — two qualities that rate right up there with the inexpensive food.

If you too are curious about the name, here’s the story. Flunch is a portmanteau of ‘fast’ and ‘lunch’. So Flunch is a fast lunch. Clever, right? Examples of these kinds of words in English are brunch, liger (think Napoleon Dynamite), and several proper nouns such as Mexicali, Calexico, Amtrak, and Microsoft. Never heard of the word ‘portmanteau’? Me neither. Being a fan of all things linguistic, I just had to Google that. So let me save you the search and enlighten you. A portmanteau is a linguistic blend of words. The English word ‘portmanteau’, inspired by a similar French term, was originally used to refer to a piece of luggage with two compartments. If you are familiar with French, you might recognize the words porter (to carry) and manteau (coat) that have been combined to create this compound word. Nowadays, the French word portemanteau is used for a coatrack or hanger rather than a suitcase. So, technically, these two words are “false friends” more formally known to those of us in the language biz as false cognates — two words in different languages that look and/or sound the same but don’t mean the same thing. The French have also coined the verb fluncher which can be used in expressions like on va fluncher — Let’s have a fast lunch. Try adding that to your hip lingo next time you are in France.


It’s All in the Numbers

imageMany people find it difficult to understand why we would want to move to France when I retire. After all, the United States is known for its abundance of opportunities and resources and certainly, California, the state where we live, has a huge variety of landscapes and areas from which to choose. We can easily drive to the beach, the mountains, the desert, and one of the most popular national parks, Yosemite. Whatever you’re in the mood for is just at your fingertips. Why would we want to leave all that behind? What could possibly be better?

Well, any major life-changing decision like this is purely personal and really depends one’s particular situation and point of view. So let me describe our perspective and experience. We live in the second fastest-moving housing market in the U.S. In the 10 years we have been here, we have seen housing prices fluctuate like crazy and rents skyrocket. When we moved here in 2005, we rented a 1000 sq. ft. two bedroom, two bath apartment for $1600 a month — twice the price of the mortgage on the much larger house with a pool we were in the process of selling in Southern California. We were prepared for that. We knew well that life in the Silicon Valley (home of Google, Apple, Facebook, and just about every other tech giant you can name) would be much more expensive than our previous location, but would also offer us much more in terms of income, opportunities, culture so it was worth the investment.

We were hoping to buy another home, our first together actually, but the prospects seemed nil. We used to take walks through the very community where we now live right across the street from our original apartment. At the time, the townhouses here like the one we currently own were selling for about $950,000. When the economy began to decline in 2007, the rent on our apartment increased to the cost of a mortgage payment and we knew it was time to buy. Housing prices had dropped and we were able to purchase our 1400 sq. ft. townhouse for $517,000. Yes, that’s right, we bought the very same townhouse that was selling two years earlier for almost $1 mil for “only” half a mil, which is still ridiculous. I’m a teacher for heaven’s sake not some high tech entrepreneur. Over the next few years as the economy worsened, the value of our home fell to around $360,000. Many of our neighbors who were upside-down in their mortgages and couldn’t afford to wait it out, just walked away from their homes and left them to the bank.

Since I still had several years to work before retirement, we had hope that things would eventually turn around again and just this past year that began to happen. Our townhouse is now officially valued at $570,000 but we could sell it for much more. In fact, we have seen many homes in our neighborhood sell to cash buyers during a single weekend open house usually for many thousands over the asking price. The upswing in the economy driven by the expansion of all the high tech companies in the area seems to be having its positive-negative impact on the market as usual. The upside, of course, is that you can sell your home for quite a profit, but, if you do, where will you be able to afford to live? The downside is that property taxes in the U.S. are based on the current value of your house not your purchase price. While you may have a fixed monthly mortgage payment that you can afford as we do, your taxes can keep rising as they did last year resulting in an increase of $500 a month on top of our mortgage payment. This is why many people who have paid off their mortgages can’t afford to stay in their homes once they retire on a fixed income. They simply can’t afford to pay the taxes.

Currently in the Silicon Valley, even the middle class is being squeezed out of the housing market. Dual income couples with professional jobs can barely manage to live here never mind people earning much less. Since 2010, rents have increased 50% with the average rent for a two bed, two bath apartment starting at $2500-2800. Our old apartment now rents for over $3000 a month. Landlords are typically asking prospective tenants to show proof of annual income that is triple the rent. So, in order to rent one of those $2500 apartments (if you can find one), you would have to have $90,000 in yearly income. Our son recently moved to San Francisco after getting a job with Apple. He was lucky to find and be able to rent a tiny room in the City for $1400 a month.

What does all this mean for us? We love the home we have created for ourselves over the past 8 years. It was pretty great to start with, but Norman has done so much work to make it even more amazing and enjoyable for us. We would really like to keep it once I retire, but truly that’s not practical. I am fortunate that I will be able to finish my career in a place where I earn one of the highest teacher salaries in the U.S. upon which my retirement income will be based. We could pay the mortgage and maybe even the rising taxes for a while, but we wouldn’t be able to do much of anything else. As Norman likes to put it, we would be “house poor”. The reality is… we will need to move. We are relieved that, assuming things stay more or less the same, we will be able to sell our home in a couple of years for a good price, recoup our 50% down, and reap a little profit on top of that. The question is… where can we take our money and make the most of it?

We have both lived many places in the United States and traveled to even more. Honestly, there is no place more appealing to us than where we live right now. So, if we are going to move, we need to look farther afield. And this leads us back to France. Why not? There we can pay cash for a detached home (ah, to have our own private walls and space once again!) and eliminate a monthly mortgage payment altogether. That’s a big win to start with. And since I grew up learning the lesson that “home is where you hang your hat”, I know we can make a new home “ours” once more. It’s not just the numbers pushing us in that direction, but the French lifestyle and culture as well that appeal to us so much. I’m certain there will always be things we will miss and other things that will drive us crazy, but we think the trade-off for financial peace of mind and a simpler life will be well worth it.

Obviously, we still have much research and planning ahead of us, but we enjoy that challenge and are not daunted by the amount of work it may take to achieve our goal. Only time will tell, as they say, but we’re going to give it a good shot.

French Fix

Some of our followers have bemoaned the fact that now that we are home they won’t be getting their (almost daily) French fix. Well, even though it’s time to get back to our regular American lives, this blog is far from finished and our journey to and through France is far from over. While it is obviously much easier to blog often when we are engulfed in French culture, there are still many topics we didn’t have time to cover and other things that will come up as we move forward toward the next stage of our retirement plan.

So, stay tuned for more French info, more stories, and most certainly, more adventures. Meanwhile, we’ll leave you with some of our favorite images.

Picture Perfect Confolens

Picture Perfect Confolens

Fairy tale Chatêau in Nanteuil-sur-Charente

Fairy Tale Castle in Verteuil-sur-Charente

Beautiful Brantôme

Beautiful Brantôme

The Lush & Inviting Vézère

The Lush & Inviting Vézère River

A bientôt!

Au Revoir


Our last morning in France… Sitting at Bordeaux Airport on the way to Paris CDG with enough of a layover for a nice lunch and then off to SFO. At the moment we are glad to being going home, glad to be rid of the car and driving in France, glad to be done with packing our bags and moving them to a new location every week, glad to be finished trying to figure things out all the time. However, it was a wonderful trip and when we get home, I know there are some things we will miss…

The French Meal Schedule: A petit déjeuner — breakfast and truly “petit” (small) — our favorite: plain yogurt topped with fresh seasonal fruit and cornflakes; otherwise, it’s a pastry and coffee or tea — eaten at about 10AM (of course, if you work it’s a bit earlier but NOT at 6:30 AM!). Déjeuner (lunch) – a light one or Apéro around 5-7 PM — snacks of small crackers, nuts, and olives or sometimes cheese, meats, and slices of a baguette. Le Dîner (dinner) at 9 or 10. Goodness, I couldn’t keep these hours at home, but I have loved it here in France and look forward to living my retired life that way if we decide to take that final step.

French Courtesy: The regular practice of exchanging a sincere “Bonjour” upon entering any business establishment and “Merci. Au revoir” when you leave generally delivered with a certain cheery lilt, a smile, and real eye contact.

Relaxed Social Atmosphere: When the French are out and about having dinner or hanging out with friends, we have noticed that they take their time and seem satisfied just to be out. It is such a pleasant atmosphere to be around as opposed to the experience in America where everyone who is out seems to be in such a hurry, never satisfied, and always busy rushing off to the next thing.

The Beauty of the Countryside: As we have said many times before, France is such a beautifully diverse country. The geography is incredible — so many different kinds of trees, mountains, rivers running here and there galore. It’s never ending. There’s always something new and amazing around every bend.

Despite all that and much more about which I am sure we will reminisce in the coming year, we still look forward to certain things at home we haven’t enjoyed for the past several weeks… Driving right up to our (now seemingly huge by comparison) 1400 sq. ft. townhouse — into a garage even! — instead of parking down the street or in a parking garage and hauling things to and fro. And while French beds are surprisingly all quite comfortable — our own bed, sheets, towels — dried in a dryer so they’re soft and fluffy rather than stiff from line drying. Carpeted floors, smooth cobblestone-free streets, connecting on our iPhones and iPads without wifi — oh, and actually being able to make a phone call if necessary! The quiet and comfort of our own personal space.

No matter what we choose to do in the end, every stage of the process is one to be cherished for its own individual and unique experiences and this stage was no exception. For now it’s time to say “au revoir” to France and jump back into the California swing of things with a little French on the side as we continue our language studies and research for next summer.


Bordeaux, City of the Young

It has been an incredible journey. Eight weeks of travel, planning, inquiry, and discovery. At times infuriatingly (and seemingly) complicated and at others, a terrifically fun time. We have met some very interesting people and have seen some incredible places. When we look back to the past weeks, it seems that time has passed slowly and that we could spend much more time here. But duty calls and we must return home.

imageBut… last blast! In Bordeaux. One of the funny things that we realized when we got here was that eight weeks ago when we came to Bordeaux, we visited the area only a block or two away from where our last apartment would be. On Friday, for Cheryl’s birthday, we took a river dinner cruise and headed out to the mouth of the river Garonne. Upon returning, we took in the entire city. Lit up, it was quite a spectacle. Afterwards, we walked the promenade along the river to an open air venue where we joined a large crowd dancing to swing music. Strolling back to the apartment, we realized that we weren’t ready to return home. We could stay for a much longer time.

Place de la Bourse

Place de la Bourse

Bordeaux is France’s sixth largest city. It it the capital of the region of the the Aquitaine and the country’s largest wine producing area bottling more than a billion bottles of wine annually. It is bisected by the river Garonne and has more than 240,000 residents of which more than half in the city proper are under the age of thirty. Including the suburbs and outlying towns, the population exceeds 750,000. It is home to famous wine making labels such as Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Margaux, Château Latour, Château Haut-Brion, and Château Mouton Rothschild to name just a few.

imageThe next day we decided that we wanted to spend the day seeing the city and so after a flavorful breakfast, we set out to see the rest of it. Bordeaux is modernizing and has recently built a brand-new electric tram system that covers the major parts of the city. A day pass allows you to use the tram and buses all day long for a small fee. After riding to the ends of the line in a few different directions to get a sense of the outlying areas of Bordeaux, we stopped in the public gardens to relax and enjoy a refreshing drink. It is interesting to note that in France whenever you order an alcoholic beverage, the menu, and often the glass in which it is served, indicate exactly the volume (in centiliters) of your drink. So, for example, when you order a glass of wine, you know in advance exactly how much you will receive and this makes it easy to decide if it is a good deal for the price. Beer is always served in a glass that has the exact label of the beer on it, and many times the coaster displays the brand of the beer as well. Prices for wine and beer are half to one-third the price they are in the States.

Miroir d'Eau

Miroir d’Eau

The days here have been mild with a slight breeze which is well appreciated as the breeze cools down the city. After dinner, we strolled out onto the quai by the river and back to the outdoor dance venue which this time was featuring salsa dancing! After dancing for a while, we strolled back toward our neighborhood. During our stay, what we have noticed the most is that where ever we have gone, there has been a mix of people of all ages. Just like so many of the other places we have been to in France, we encountered families with small children, teenagers, young adults, groups of young men or women, very old couples, and everyone in between. During our stroll, there were people enjoying a picnic here and there, children playing in the water of the Miroir d’Eau, bicyclists going to and fro, groups of young people sitting and talking softly while enjoying a glass of wine or a beer, and embracing lovers gazing at the rising full moon. It was a very calming and relaxing atmosphere that made us think about the differences compared to our own culture.

Place du Palais

Place du Palais

We cannot speak to the rest of the country, but certainly where we have been, we have experienced a culture that still demands that people behave respectfully towards each other. The thing that stands out the most for us is that there are very few signs anywhere that prohibit one from doing/behaving in certain ways. In the U.S., not only are we the most litigious country in the world but our sense of “having our rights” makes us very demanding in a way that we have not seen here. There are few signs that demand that you not ride your bike, skateboard, loiter, pander, drink, jump off of or dive from something, or just not stand around etc. etc. etc.

We have also noticed that there are no railings in many places to keep you or your children from falling into or off of something. It is your responsibility to practice common sense for your and your children’s safety. Nor are there strict regulations about which direction to park on the side of a street (other than a one way street). When we were in Monségur at the night market, we noticed that a couple and their teenage son (around 14 years old or so) were tasting wine at one of the vendor’s stalls. The parents gave their son their glass of wine to taste from which he took a small sip. No one reacted with shock and dismay, no one called Child Protective Services, the parents weren’t accused of aiding and abetting the delinquency of their child, and the wine vendor nodded in approval. Maybe, in part, this is why the French don’t have such a problem with public drunkenness or alcoholism. Having a glass of wine with you meal adds to the enjoyment of the taste and isn’t an excuse to get a buzz on or to get drunk.

At the beach in San Sebastián, there were topless sunbathers, from preteens to mothers of all ages. Not one was shocked, disgusted, or ran to throw a towel over the bare breasts laying about on the sand. Being bare breasted took away the salaciousness and replaced it with a natural asexuality. Due to the custom of eating at certain times of the day and late at night , no one ate at the beach. No coolers or bags of food were seen anywhere. In the evening, when the beaches were clear, there wasn’t any litter or trash anywhere. The beaches were absolutely clean. In many other places where there were very crowded conditions, people were very conscious of displaying courtesy towards each other and we never saw nor heard disagreements. While sitting outside at various cafes and restaurants, many times the chairs were only inches from the curb. Cars would whiz by but not a single person threw up their hands in dismay at such a close encounter. And when a meal was delivered that wasn’t up to expectations, no one called back the waiter to complain and demand that he immediately take it back to the kitchen and return with a gourmet version.

Courtesy, tolerance, getting along, and the constant use of “merci” seems the norm and we appreciate it. Change is the only constant, and it is happening everywhere. The difference is that in the U.S., change is the norm (most profoundly in California) where as here, it is slowly evolving. We live in a large city and right in the heart of the Silicon Valley where change is a regular occurrence and the pace of life is hectic. We are sure that in the larger cities like Paris, Marseille, Cannes, Monaco etc. change is much more rapid, so the slower more traditional pace of life in the southwest of France and its beautiful surroundings is what appeals to us.

We are looking forward to returning, to be in one place next summer while we explore an even smaller area where we may seriously consider retiring. Life may, indeed, be like a box of chocolates……you never know what you will get…….but it is also like a book, where one chapter leads to another.

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