Sunday, October 31, 2010

Cuisine Équipé OU Carolyn et Keith contre Les Agences Immobilier

So... apartment hunting... We are having a bit of difficulty finding an apartment in Marseille and are still on the hunt. Not only is it near to impossible to get in touch with the agents who are responsible for showing the apartments (agence immobilier), but we have once again run up against some stupid bureaucracy. Apparently there has been difficulty in the past evicting people who cannot pay their rent. This has lead to owners buying insurance that will compensate them if their tenant fails to pay the rent. This all sounds completely reasonable, but here is the catch for us, to satisfy the insurance companies you can only rent to a tenant who makes three times the rent. Keith has an adequate, but small salary, and since I have not even had time to think of finding employment, we are limited to select from the small number of places that fit within 1/3 of Keith`s salary. The thing that really bugs me is that we had planned for this. We had put aside some money so that I would have time to find a job and we could find our feet. But this doesn`t matter - we could have millions in the bank and still they would not be able to accept us as tenant. I guess if we had millions in the bank we would be buying a vila on a vineyard instead of looking at every hole in the wall we can actually make an appointment to see.

We continue to press on with the search and have discovered some other unique aspects to renting in France. Firstly, the original plan was to rent a furnished place, but because of the budget limitations we cannot afford a furnished place much bigger than a thimble. Instead we have opted to go the Ikea/LeBonCoin route. LeBonCoin is the equivalent of Kijiji in France, and I must say I always look forward to shopping at Ikea, even if we are only going to get essentials there. Don’t worry future visitors, we will have a bed ready for you and will make sure it fits your high standards.  The second interesting thing about renting an apartment here are the kitchens. Kitchens do not necessarily come with appliances, or for that matter cupboards, which also means no countertops. I am continually surprised every time I walk into a kitchen and see only a sink.  It is strange, empty, and souless. Kitchens should be full of nooks and crannies and things that go whiz and pop. I feel like I am on some crazy home renovation show every time I walk into les cuisines. With this in mind our goal has now become to try to get 'une cuisine équipé'. I know what you are thinking, “Ah! That sounds good.” Unfortunately une cuisine équipé can mean a range, stove, fridge and washing machine (yes one for clothes in the kitchen) all included, only the range being included, or anything in between. One other quirk about apartments here that I have not encountered in my other travels in Europe has been the separate bathroom and WC (wash closet). I remember in kindergarten being confused as to whether it was proper to use the word bathroom or washroom for the school toilettes as there were not any actual baths at the school. Well this has simply added another level of confusion to my lexicon and my sense of hygiene. Why would you have one room with your sink, bath, shower etc. and one closet (yes literally these are the size of closets) with only your toilette. It just doesn`t make sense to me. Howver, let me affirm that if we do end up with an apartment with these arrangements I will be investing in hand sanitizer for the WC and rigging up a way for one to use it without touching anything else.

I must comment on how well Keith has dealt with all of the phone calls and sorting through all of the not so potential apartments.  I have been cheering from the sidelines and pushing him on like a slave driver at times, but feel a bit useless. We only have one wire for the internet which means that he has been appointed the work horse due to his superior knowledge of the French language.  Monday is a holiday, but we will press on with our search next week and I will hopefully soon be able to describe our delightful new place (and new furniture!!!!)

To alleviate the feelings of frustration of our search we have had two amazing outings. The first was a dinner with Keith`s boss and labmates on what happened to be my birthday. Geneviéve, Keith’s boss, made dinner for all of us and it was fantastic. Firstly, she is house sitting for a friend who has a villa.  The house itself was amazing, but from what we could see in the dark and from what we ate from the garden and adjacent vineyard we can assume that the grounds are just as spectacular. Dinner stared with halved avocados that were cradling a fish, vegetable and creamy dressing mixture for the others, and a vinegar dressing for me. Then we moved on to a pork which was simply delicious and my first taste of real ratatouille. The ratatouille was phenomenally warm in flavour and how could you not feel healthy eating all of those vegetables? I will definitely be asking for the recipe for that one to share with all of you. Next came a course of salads and cheese. Keith is blown over by the cheese here and has declared he will be gaining the “French fifteen” on cheese alone. Dinner finished with grapes from the garden and une gateau particular to the region. It was a fantastic dinner and Geneviéve was so kind as to choose dishes that enabled me to fully partake in the meal. After the wonderful food, some good wine and the late hour my comprehension began to shut down, but really what a way to enter your 30th year.

               In order to work off the extra calories of the glorious meal of the night before, Keith and I set out to explore the many trails in the area that lead to the different calanques or fjords of the Mediterranean.  The one that we chose actually starts right on the University campus at Luminy. The trail system that leads to the different calanques in the area is quite extensive and is well maintained but finding a map of them seems to be near to impossible. We have decided to simply explore them bit by bit as time allows. Our meandering took us not down to the calanque, but up to a lookout far above the sea. The whole trip was pretty much breathtaking and we can’t wait to go further in our explorations. 

There are so many fantastic things to look forward to doing and seeing here that it is hard to come to terms with the fact that this is not a vacation. I’m sure that another round of apartment hunting will snap into focus the requirements of getting a job and actually settling down, but in the meantime we might as well enjoy ourselves.

Friday, October 29, 2010

L’organization et la bureaucratie

My lovely message therapist, Robin, predicted that once I actually got to France life would slow down a bit, and hopefully my shoulders would loosen up on their own. So far the shoulders are still tight. It is not that things are stressful here, but I think my body is in need of routine. Our goal everyday has been to get at least one big thing done or make one big decision. So far we have accomplished this, but as our minds are working in overdrive thinking of what needs to be next on the list, we find ourselves exhausted by the end of the day.
Firstly as most of you know, I need organization. We are currently staying at an apartment/residence that was found for us by our long time friend, the ever resourceful Amanda. She was able to find a place for us to stay in while hunting for an apartment that not only fit the budget, but had a kitchenette, which is a must pour moi. It is great to see how she has grown her own business and how far her expertise extends. I would encourage any of you who are planning a trip to check out
The apartment we are currently in is like living in an Ikea display. Everything has clear clean lines and the space is used efficiently. It has allowed me to somewhat organize the chaos of our suitcases which involved stuffing socks, underwear and t-shirts into any crevice that was left over so that we could fit all of our stuff into three suitcases. I don`t think I mentioned that before, but we did manage to move across the ocean with only three suitcases! (And of course our treasured velos.) As much as I am thoroughly enjoying the location of our currently lodgings and the helpful concierge, I really would like to settle into somewhere soon so that I don`t have to ask Keith where he put the key for the hundredth time. In the mean time we continue to enjoy some great walks and excellent views. For all those who plan on visiting this is what you have to look forward to!

Some of our major victories on the road to getting organized and settling down here have included opening a bank account, almost buying mobiles, and meeting the lab en français. On Saturday morning, Keith`s colleague, Franck invited us over for coffee with the plan of later taking us to the bank. Franck was a fantastic host and spoke to us in French for almost forty minutes before switching to English. Amazingly I understood almost all that was being said, although I find my inability to contribute to conversation a bit frustrating. Keith is doing splendidly, and once again I will chastise my parents for not putting me in French immersion and remind all of you parents with little ones out there that language skills acquired at an early age stay with people throughout their lives. Feeling quite jubilant about my ability to understand what was happening, we drove off to the bank and the feeling of confidence began to slide. I would like to consider myself fairly financially literate, but I know that it takes me a bit more time to process the ins and outs of taxes, interest rates and account fees. When I make financial decisions in English I am constantly processing and reprocessing the options with a lot of “self talk” (go literacy skills). In French, although I understood some of the conversation, I did not necessarily have the time to process. In fact, I was usually still translating the numbers when the conversation moved on to something else. Then Keith and I were asked whether our marriage a bien-être or covenance.  I guess the former means you share everything and the latter is more like if a pre-nuptial agreement were signed. Stranger and stranger. Thank goodness Franck was there. Setting up the account took about an hour and a half without Franck, I’m sure it would have taken more like three hours.
Our appointment at the bank has continued to affirm one stereotype and contradicted another about the French. Firstly, everyone we have met and interacted with has been overly helpful and genuinely friendly. The stereotype that the French are snobs seems completely untrue. Everyone we have encountered so far has put up with our limited French and been most understanding when we slip in a couple of English words that we cannot translate. The stereotype that has been confirmed is that the paperwork and bureaucracy are never ending. We spent half of yesterday morning attempting to set up a contract for our mobiles. Again the agent was overly helpful, but she had to continually check with her boss as we pulled out document after document to attempt to show her that we were going to be permanent residence in France for the next two years. After finally going back to the apartment to get further documentation, we succeeded only to find out that the computer system will not accept our Canadian credit or debit cards. Instead we have to wait for our French bank cards before we can get the mobiles. I’m sure there must be an easier way, but for the moment we have decided simply to wait and choose our battles.
We knew that the bureaucracy was bad when we were dealing with our visa applications, but now that we are inside the system it is something truly atrocious. I feel like I have stepped inside a large mechanized clock, but can only see a couple of the cogs. Are there other cogs? Do they actually connect up? Is there really a reason why I have to write my married and maiden names four times on the same document? The morning at the mobile store was only a prelude to the afternoon`s endless stream of documents. We went for a tour of the lab and were hoping to get Keith`s contract signed. We did get a very thorough orientation of the industrial buildings which will be Keith`s second home for the next two or three years. Everything is made of cement, and although it is painted bright solid colours, the pipes and wiring running over your head in the corridors give it a most utilitarian feel. We were also introduced to two different secretaries, whose desks were both littered with papers and forms. Both spent time pulling up and printing off documents that needed to be read, signed or would have to be finished by someone else before Keith could sign them. He has to get four security cards: two of these are for buildings, one is for the cantine, and the other (you will never guess) is for the coffee machine! The latter two cards allow the university to provide food and coffee at prices proportional to your pay. This is a great idea, but when you need to go to two different secretaries with four or more forms and pieces of paper to get it, my support for the idea wanes. It is too bad I didn`t take a picture of the desks they really were priceless, but then I’m sure I’d be breaking some confidentiality code that Keith signed his life away to protect. They seem to be pretty big on the confidentiality and secrecy here.
            Currently we are madly on the hunt for an apartment, but had time to meet Keith`s “team” or lab-mates for drinks last night. Everyone seems lively and interesting, although by the end of the night my comprehension got worse and worse as I grew more tired. Hopefully this will be the beginning of many other nights with friends.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


              On Sunday morning we did a quick tour of the mountainous area surrounding Marseille thanks to our car`s GPS. There are some quaint villages and an amazing resort town called Cassis all within 20km of the city. We will have to make a point of going back and exploring some of these further. This trip was just to get our bearings and decide if perhaps living in the country might be a better idea than the city. The definite answer on that has been no.  Marseille unlike many of the smaller villages surrounding it has lovely views it seems from everywhere you are. The sight of the mountains or the sea make it feel like it is really not that big of a city. There is so much life and so many places to explore here that we feel drawn to the city, where we can meander about on foot and take in new things everyday at a leisurely pace.
                Our explorations on Sunday led us to Notre-Dame de la Garde. This church is situated up on the pinnacle of a hill and it really is quite a hike to get up to it.  It is a landmark for the city and as you walk around the church you can see every area of Marseille. Although a bit hazy, the view of the harbour was magnificent. Complete with its fleet of tankers waiting for the strike to end so that they can gas up, the view is astounding. We went to mass inside the church which has gold mosaics all over the ceilings and also mobiles of model ships hanging from the rafters. This church is visible from the harbour and marble plaques cover the walls both inside and out thanking Our Lady for guiding sailors to safety and for protecting children or those who have gone to war. The mass itself was a bit difficult to understand, and decided that we desperately need a missal! We were able to comprehend that the mass also included a bunch of songs and intercessions to Mary which we think are particular to this church. Regardless of our limited understanding, the afternoon has continued to connect us to Marseille, and at the same time provide some picturesque geography lessons.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Le Pouce: the thumb

Yes that is a giant thumb in the middle of a traffic circle and it has become the point by which we orient ourselves.
               How did the thumb become the centre of our geographical lives here in Marseille? Excellent question. It started with us arriving in Marseille about two hours late. Our plane from Paris to Marseille took over forty-five minutes to load, mostly because people had too many carry-on pieces and did not have the sense to optimize space by putting pieces both above them and at their feet. After this ridiculous loading, the captain came on and informed us that air traffic controllers were en grève (on strike) for the next hour, so we sat on the tarmac for at least an hour. It was at this time, probably because of a lack of adequate oxygen in the cabin, that both Keith and I were finally able to fall asleep.
               Navigating Marseille to find our residence was an adventure in itself as well. Traffic in Marseille is like many European cities: the roads are narrow, there is no system to the how the streets connects, and it seems that traffic rules are more suggestions than laws. In particular we find it interesting that parking either halfway up on the sidewalk or all the way on the sidewalk in a marked spot is common. No more worries about how close to the curb you are, just bump yourself right on top of it! In addition to all of this, the garbage collectors are currently en grève, so there are, at some points, piles of garbage a quarter of the way into the road.  After some wrong turns and descending a fifty degree hill that triggered childhood nightmares of me in a car rolling down the Alex Taylor hill, we arrived at our lodging in one piece. Tired and famished we realized our concierge was on lunch and opted to do the same.
               We ate lunch at a local café which is called “La Table du Pouce” and this begins our connections with the thumb. Oh the food! I’m sure this is just the beginning of many wonderful descriptions. I had the Salade Océan, which contained more seafood than salad. It was colourful and contained so many prawns that later that evening I had to Youtube how to eat prawns. My attempt was messy and quite un-lady-like like, but the Youtube instructions from a rotund Aussie in an oversized white tank top have clarified the etiquette. Keith`s lunch was mole fish which is a local specialty and came with various vegetables, cheese and an egg. To walk off our lunch and 20 hours of travelling we took a stroll around the neighbourhood. Using le pouce as a landmark we were able to find a gorgeous park with fountains and gardens as well as excellent views of the mountains which surround Marseille and of course the Mediterranean. 

               As for le pouce, it not only has helped us to get to know our local surroundings but has become a useful way to answer the question of where we are staying. By replying `à côté du pouce’ and sticking up our thumbs everyone knows immediately where we are located. After some further research (ie reading the plaque next to the statue) we have found out that le pouce also has special meaning for us as newcomers to Marseille because

 “The contemporary French sculpture symbolizes the successful integration of strangers to Marseille.”  Le Pouce de César Baldaccini

The warmth of the weather, the sight of palm trees, and the constant presence of our suitcases make this still feel like more of a vacation than a move, but for the moment, regardless of what we label this adventure, we are running on either adrenaline or deep sighs of content as we look at our surroundings.