March 2018

Not every day can be a diamond and March hasn’t been a fabulous month for us, for a few reasons.

Firstly, Sue’s mother Monica Lesley Merrett died on Tuesday, March 20th. In a case of horrid timing, this was just at the moment when Sue was absolutely unable to go back to Adelaide. A month before, or after and it would have been easy, as had been planned. Sue really struggled with not being able to go home for the funeral and having to leave her sisters to do all the work involved in planning the funeral, clearing out Lesley’s house and nursing home room and then tying up all the matters for her estate.

All the family is grateful that Lesley’s demise was quick and she didn’t suffer or linger and are also grateful for the well wishes from all. 

The other reason it’s been a horrible month is because our much loved brother-in-law John Froscio was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. John and Jo, and their grown-up children Adam and Alice are seizing every day and building wonderful family memories. Alice is soon to be married and that will be another day of wonderful memories of John.

Sometimes life is just unfair, don’t you think?

We returned to France early in March to deal with French bureaucracy – in french! We are so thankful for technology and Google Translate as well as other translating apps.

The contrast between France and Mediterranean Spain was marked. As we crossed the border from Spain to France we were struck by how clean and green the French countryside was.  The French are very environmentally conscious and their farms are picturesque. On our route there were many fields being ploughed ready for the planting of the sunflowers we saw in summer. There were also all the lovely villages with churches every few miles.

We had a long list of things to achieve while in France and hoped to be able to achieve them in a couple of weeks. How naive! The list kept growing the longer we were here and the timeframes predicted were for up to 8 weeks!

The first and most important task for us was renewing our temporary residency visa, which we have to do every year. This is amazingly complicated from beginning to end. You have to negotiate a bizarre website and booking system to get an interview at the Prefecture in Angouleme, our local administrative centre about 25km from our address in Jarnac. Then you have to attend in person and present a folio of documentation. You are then issued with a provisional temporary visa that lasts for 6 months. In three months you will receive a request for payment of 269 euros each and then once paid, you will be granted another ‘real’ temporary visa for a further 6 months. Then you have to go through the same thing all over again! You can get a temporary visa every year for 5 years and then can apply for a 10-year visa, but have to be able to speak French. Five years will be our limit, we think!

The upside to this process was that we got to spend time in Angouleme. The Prefecture was located in the old town that sits atop a hill, as they all seem to do. Very narrow winding roads going steeply uphill. We have now decided we need to consult Google Street View before attempting anything in old towns. By the time we got to the Prefecture to scope the place out for the following day, we were both very stressed and decided to just park up for the night, as it felt very safe around there and we couldn‘t face the drive a second time.

We stayed on the ramparts with the most stunning view of the town and valley and amused ourselves next morning with a wander around Angouleme before our appointment. Beautiful street art, architecture and a nice covered market.

With most campgrounds in France closed at this time of year and because we needed to return Michael’s electric bike to Rochefort for a replacement (it was rusting), we decided to head to the coast to stay in the year-round campsite at Fouras. We had stayed in this lovely little seaside resort last year. It’s only an hour from Jarnac and has a nice market and seafood restaurants as well as lots of good walks. The campsite has wonderful free internet access and we were also avoiding another predicted cold snap. We have learned to check AccuWeather or other forecasting apps as a matter of priority each day.

While we were there in Fouras the cold snap found us and after a couple of days of freezing winds, we got snow! On the coast! While it did snow quite heavily, it melted very quickly so we didn’t get a chance to build snowmen. It snowed and sleeted all day, so we were stuck inside our camping car. We have reverse-cycle air-conditioning; gas under-floor heating and a highly effective plug-in halogen heater, so we were toasty warm. We had plenty to eat and drink; backgammon and crosswords; books and Internet research for our next trips; as well as time for a little ‘nana-nap’. We weren’t bored.

Other administrative activities for our time here in France have included:

Opening a French bank account - a process taking three weeks and involving four steps, an interview, lots of documentation and two posted letters! This is still a work in progress.

Opening an international bank account in Gibraltar so we’re not paying such a fortune each month in foreign transaction fees. Because of the linked risks of money laundering and terrorism, bank accounts are very difficult to get and for us, the part about proving residency is tricky. Michael was ok because he had car registration and insurance in his name. Sue had a more difficult time and had to wait until we got the French bank account to open the other one.

All do-able, it’s just a matter of patience and is still a work in progress.

The biggest problem for us in the last month has been issues with our camping car. We had a small dingle with a low-hanging branch - barely a scratch - that caused a bigger problem later when the rear top spoiler ripped as we were driving. This meant another insurance claim and a wait of up to a month for the part to arrive and be replaced. This can all be done in Cognac, 11km from our base. Our insurance company declined to insure us again (how dare they!) as we were considered a ‘bad risk’ so we also had to find another insurance company.

On returning to Jarnac and going through the mail we found a letter from FIAT (our ADRIA motorhome has a FIAT engine). When we translated the letter it was a recall notice. We fronted up to a FIAT Professional in nearby Cognac and the part was replaced immediately.

“Is this France?” we said.

The FIAT Professional also checked and found that there was another recall on our model and booked us in for the next Tuesday. Imagine our dismay to find out that we had a big crack in a pipe (we don’t know exactly where as we can’t translate the mechanical term) that posed a serious risk of fire. We were advised not to drive it more than a few km and that it would take up to a month for the part to arrive. Luckily, the part was delivered early and we will have it installed in the first week of April.

Now it’s just the crash repair and the gas fitting to go! Fingers crossed, we’d like to be able to head to Portugal by late April - but the fat lady hasn’t sung yet!

So, no driving for up to a month, grounded in Jarnac and camping grounds closed until April 20th. Free camping for that long in winter really wasn’t for us, so what could we do?

We had made friends with the chef-owner of a local restaurant called La Comedie Café in the Place du Chateau and asked his advice. This has been our favourite place to eat and drink in Jarnac with fabulous duck cassoulet, entrecote and a he’s a master of subtle sauces. Sondra & Julie are his friendly front of house team, who have been with him for ages. Turns out he has an apartment that was currently unoccupied and had a secure parking space for our camping car. Brilliant! Lovely and warm, clean and with a great hot shower. It’s very old and up some extremely steep stairs. Who cares? We’re cozy and very happy. Thanks, Fred!

Jarnac is a lovely small village in the Charente valley, 11km from the larger town of Cognac and surrounded by small hamlets that all seem to end in ‘ac’ – Gensac, Segonsac etc. It has a very high rainfall, especially at this time of year and the weather changes by the minute from sun to rain to cloud then wind. We’ve learned not to leave home without both an umbrella and sunglasses!

The very beautiful Charente River flows through the town and we have often free-camped on its banks. At the start of March ‘they’ (not sure if it’s the local fishing club or the Charente Water Board) release 3000 trout into the river around the Jarnac area. The fishermen go crazy and fish every available hour, rain, hail or shine. They dress in camouflage gear and there are serious rules about allowed bait and catch limits. We saw one man catch six beautiful trout, his limit for the day.

We have been amusing ourselves by taking long walks along the river. It is so beautiful! There are lots of important cognac houses/distillers in this area and you can find them simply by looking for the telltale black mold caused by the ‘angel’s breath’ or the evaporation. There are also some beautiful small chalets or chateaux along the river.

The other big attraction here is the kayaking course and club on the river. In the early evenings and on Wednesday afternoons (when there is no school) there are lessons and coaching for both children and adults. On weekends there are competitions that are great fun to watch. We were amazed at how skillful some of the quite little kids were, to say nothing of brave. The water is running really fast and it’s freezing.

There is quite a lively British expat community in Jarnac, so we have had some interesting people to talk to and a support network if we need it. The Woolly’s Bar and Grill pop-up bar has made a couple of appearances.

Grubie is the most amazing dog, very chilled and flexible. She has coped with the change from the camping car to the apartment with no problems. We just make sure her lead is detached and let her run up and down the staircase, as she likes. She has a very predictable routine and if we work with that, she’s fine. Her favourite people are waiting staff, because they bring the water and the food and often make a fuss of her. She loves France because she’s allowed to go everywhere and the quality of the dog food is amazing. The interesting thing is that while she can go anywhere, mostly the French people don’t take their dogs out with them. She’s usually the only dog in the restaurant or on the bus.

One good thing about being grounded in Jarnac is that people know where to find us! Sam and Andy from the UK who we met in Peniscola, dropped in to see us for a day. We had a great lunch and a pot-luck dinner in their camping car, parked next to us by the river.

Our friend Marc le Grand from Bordeaux who Michael worked with in Australia is driving up to have lunch with us one day. Our English friends Peter and Maureen, whom we met in Ile d’Oleron last year, are coming to Jarnac to see us on the way south to Spain. Actually, we think they just want to beat us at boules, so we better start practicing! They have told us that no boule tampering is allowed, or they won’t play.

We have decided to view this month grounded in Jarnac as an opportunity. We plan on improving our fitness and our French language. We’ll let you know how we go!