22 September 2019

L'Ossau-Iraty, un fromage de lait de brebis

It's raining! Walt just went out with Tasha to let her do her business and reports that it is pouring right now.  I hope the rain lasts all day. It wasn't raining when I went outside with Tasha at five o'clock.

Lately, for eating and cooking, we've been enjoying sheep's milk cheeses from the Pyrénées mountains, about 300 miles south of Saint-Aignan. They're available in the supermarkets. The best-known such cheese is called Ossau-Iraty [oh-so-ee-rah-TEE] and has carried the AOC quality label since 1980. The production zone touches the Spanish border — its eastern edge is a beech forest called the Forêt d'Iraty, and the western edge is the deep Vallée d'Ossau.
Under AOC (and now AOP, a similar European label) rules, Ossau-Iraty cheese must be made with milk from flocks of sheep in a strictly defined area in the Pyrénées that corresponds roughly with the département des Pyrénées-Atlantiques, a territory about 85 miles from east to west and 55 miles from north to south.

By the way, the word brebis [bruh-BEE] in title of this post is the French word for "ewe" (a female sheep).
The biggest, best-known towns in the département are Bayonne, Biarritz, St-Jean-de-Luz on the coast in Basque Country, along with Pau and St-Jean-Pied-de-Port up in the mountains. Back in the 1970s, local people saw that traditional cheese production on farms where sheep were kept was in danger of being taken over my industrial dairies. They organized a campaign to define strict rules and methods for the production of ewe's-milk cheeses and earned the AOC label. Nowadays, Ossau Iraty cheese can be made by farmers or in local dairies with either raw or pasteurized sheep milk. It's a mild (not "stinky") semi-hard cheese with a natural rind. The milk is not heated up ("cooked") during the cheese-making process.

In the late 1800s and well into the 20th century, industrial dairies specializing in making Roquefort cheese, which is also made with sheep's milk, set up plants in the western Pyrénées and started buying milk from local farmers. They would make a plain "white" cheese and then ship it by railroad to the caves 200 miles to the east at Roquefort for aging — it was turned into the blue cheese we all know so well. In the 1970s farmers in the Roquefort area developed new hybrid sheep varieties that produced milk in greater quantities. The Roquefort producers stopped buying as much lait de brebis in the western Pyrénées. The local farmers then turned to making the traditional sheep's milk cheese of their region, giving it the Ossau-Iraty name and standardizing production methods.

21 September 2019

La fin de l'été

So this weekend summer ends. Astronomical summer, I mean. The equinox, the moment when summer becomes autumn, will happen Monday morning. That's in central European Time, which is the time zone France is in. Key words for this summer from my point of view have been: drought, heat, loo, home improvement, upheaval, medical procedures, hurricane, paperwork, confusion, administrative tangles, residence cards, tomatoes, zucchini.

Here are Natasha, the sheltie, and Bertie, the black cat, enjoying summer weather together on the terrace. They're pals.

It's funny that so much stuff is ending over the course of one or two days. A new season begins on Monday. It's supposed to turn cooler and rain. Not just tonight, tomorrow, and Monday, the rain, but for the next ten days, according to forecasts. That might put an end to the tomato harvest, but the long-suffering kale will enjoy it. On Monday we'll go pick up our new titres de séjour, and kick off new decade of legal residence in France.


And now the grass will get greener. I'm tired of hot, dry and dusty. We've been under water restrictions for weeks and weeks now. We water only a few potted plants, mostly with water that has been used for washing vegetables in the kitchen, and Walt waters the vegetable garden sparingly. All in all, I'll be glad when this summer is over. I'll spend the first month of autumn preparing for my trip to North Carolina and enjoying time spent there — as long as the weather cooperates.

20 September 2019

Carte de résident news

Yesterday we got good news. Our resident's cards are ready to be picked up. When we turned in our applications and documentation on September 3, the woman we met with told us we might well get the convocation or "summons" to come back to Blois and pick up the new cards early in October. She seemed very efficient, as well as friendly and helpful, and this early notification that our cards are ready just underscores all that.

The reason I was so stressed out by this whole process — especially when we couldn't even get an appointment before early September, even though we started the process a month earlier than the official instructions said we needed to start — is that I'm going to North Carolina in three weeks. This will be my first trip "home" since my mother passed away in February 2018. I was worried that my trip might be jeopardized by the resident's card renewal schedule. I had already bought non-refundable plane tickets and paid 50% of the price of a rental apartment in N.C. for my stay when everything threatened to go haywire.

But the most important factor was this one: I had also invited an old friend who lives in California to come and spend a week with me on the N.C. coast. Sue has been a friend for more than 40 years, and she has visited Walt and me here in Saint-Aignan three or four times over the past 15 years. For years, Sue had told me she would love to see the N.C. coast one day, after seeing my photos of the place and hearing stories about it over so many years. Finally we had a plan for a trip there together, and now a silly administrative snafu was putting the trip at risk.

Sue had already made her flight arrangements for the trip as well. As I may have said before, the last few times I've flown off to the U.S. from Paris, the immigration agents at the airport have asked me to produce not just my U.S. passport by also my French resident's card before they let me go board my plane. Everything is computerized nowadays, and I assume the agents can see on their computer screen information showing that I live in France. Fortunately, I've had the resident's card with me each time and was able to show it to them.

In addition, in two different airports in North Carolina over the past few years, when I was checking in and registering my bags for flights, airline agents have questioned me because I am flying to France without the normally required return ticket. U.S. citizens aren't allowed to travel one-way to France unless they have either a return ticket or a long-stay visa issued by a French consulate in the U.S. To stay in France for more than 90 days, you need to prove to French authorities that you have the financial resources to stay here without needing to look for work. Getting a work permit is a long, arduous process, and seeking employment without one is illegal. In my case, once I showed the airline staff my French carte de résident, they knew I was legitimate and let me continue my travels.

There you have it. I was really worried that the resident's card process might force me to change my travel plans and sacrifice the money I had paid out for airline tickets and an apartment rental. Sue's trip would be jeopardized too. Now I know that won't happen. Walt and I will go pick up our new cards at the préfecture in Blois early next week. I have now booked a rental car and paid the final rent installment for the two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo on the beach at Morehead City where Sue and I will stay. Wish us luck with the weather — the last thing I want to happen is for another hurricane to strike the N.C. coast right before or during our trip.

19 September 2019

L'Église de Saint-Aignan

Today I'm just posting three photos of the church in Saint-Aignan that I've taken over the years.
I don't have much to say this morning...

The second image is one that I created in Photoshop to put in a frame that a friend made and gave us years ago.
I have to go to a framing shop over in Loches to get it mounted. Soon.

18 September 2019


It's funny that we sometimes use the word "sky" as a plural. We all know the old Irving Berlin song, (Nothing But) Blue Skies, recorded by singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Willie Nelson. In French, it's even more complicated. In some contexts, the word ciel becomes a plural as ciels, and in others it becomes cieux. In the Lord's Prayer, for example, the first line is Notre Père qui es aux cieux... And the expression sous d'autres cieux means "in other lands," or "in other countries." I think you could say "under other skies" to mean the same thing in English.

"Red sky at night, sailors delight." Or should that be "sailor's delight"? Or maybe "sailors' delight"? "Delight" can be a noun or a verb, in other words. Anyway, the one above was a delight to see.

So was this moon from a few mornings earlier. It's amazing how it looks so perfectly round. Scientists say, however, that the Earth's moon is not really round. It's slightly egg-shaped, but the side we see looks round — it's the "dark side" that has the bulge. It was probably given its shape by the force of Earth's gravity when the moon was still in a molten state millions and millions of years ago.

17 September 2019

Un coucher de soleil

Yesterday's sunset was pretty nice. Our weather is hot again — at least the afternoons are hot, with temperatures near 30ºC. And it's so dry it could make you cry. According to the Accuweather web site, we've had just three millimeters of rain in September. That's about a tenth of an inch.

On the national news yesterday, one of the regular weather forecasters reported that much of France has had no significant rain for the past 36 days. The last time that happened was in 1953. And we also had 26 straight days without significant rain starting last June 15, and we got a total of 3 mm of rain in all of July. August was "wetter" — 8 millimeters of rain fell. Normally, we would get about 50 mm of rain in July, 50 mm in August, and again 50 mm in September. We are wondering if the rains will soon return with a vengeance, and whether we might wash away this winter.

16 September 2019

Tarte aux tomates, pesto, et fromage de brebis

Yesterday we made the tomato tart that I posted about last Friday, showing pictures that I took 15 years ago. As you can see, those tomatoes that appeared to have "green-back" ended up ripening pretty fast out on the front terrace. The slideshow below consists of 10 photos in chronological order and lasts just one minute.

Instead of Dijon mustard, we decided to make the tart with pesto, since we have such a good crop of fresh basil this year. We made pesto with basil leaves, garlic, olive oil, powdered hazelnuts (poudre de noisettes), and salt and pepper, using a stick blender.

A thin layer of the pesto was spread over the bottom of a blind-baked pie crust (pâté brisée). On top of the pesto we sprinkled some panko bread crumbs (chapelure japonaise) and some grated ewe's-milk cheese (tomme de brebis), and then laid on a layer of overlapping tomato slices (quatre belles tomates). On top we sprinkled on a little more panko and some moregrated brebis cheese.

The tart baked in the oven at 180ºC (350ºF) for about 30 minutes. I was afraid the tomatoes might be too watery, but they weren't. The breadcrumbs probably absorbed a lot of the tomato juice. We ate the tart (or most of it...) hot, right out of the oven.

15 September 2019

Closing in on Saint-Aignan

I was surprised to read just a minute ago, on French Wikipédia, that the population of Saint-Aignan declined from 3,500 in 1999 to 2,800 in 2016. That's a decrease of 20 per cent. Maybe that's because with the growth in attendance at the big Beauval zoo just south of town, more and more houses are being turned into vacation rentals for tourists.

I took these photos from the other side of the Cher River, over in Noyers-sur-Cher. The population of Noyers has increased, but only slightly, over the same period while Saint-Aignan's has been declining. The body of water here is called Le Lac des Trois Provinces, which is the western endpoint of the old Canal de Berry.

Saint-Aignan has existed since about the year 1000, when the first fortifications and the first church were built on the hill here overlooking the Cher River. The big château was built during the French Renaissance of the 1500s. It's privately owned and not open to the public.

Nowadays, the Cher River and the Canal de Berry are no longer navigable except for short sections and for very small boats. Trains that run from the city of Tours (35 miles west of Saint-Aignan) and on to the city of Lyon (200 miles to the east) stop at the Saint-Aignan-Noyers station. You can ride all the way to Lyon without any train changes, but the voyage takes about five hours — about an hour longer than driving your car.

14 September 2019

Saint-Aignan panoramas

I've been looking back at some photos I've taken over the years in Saint-Aignan. Here are two of them that show the little town's "skyline." We live about 2.3 kilometers, less than 1½ miles from the château.

In the photo above, in which you can see the Romanesque church, the Renaissance château, and the ruined medieval tower of the original château-fort, as well as the houses along the river below.

The photo above, which I've turned into a sepia-toned image, shows a closer view of the church and château in Saint-Aignan. As always, you can enlarge these views by clicking on them with your mouse or, if you're using a tablet, "unpinching" them.

13 September 2019

Tomates farcies au thon

Tuna salad — rillettes de thon in French — is a nice cold accompaniment to fresh summer tomatoes. This salad is made of thon germon (a.k.a. thon blanc, called "albacore" in North America), shallot, cornichons, capers, mayonnaise, and dried oregano. You can add some of the water that the tuna is packed in to thin the mayonnaise slightly and add more tuna flavor.

Butter lettuce and diced zucchini, along with green olives, are good garnishes.

At the last minute, we decided that some hard-boiled eggs (œufs durs) would be a good addition. And some fresh parsley that we have growing in pots on the front terrace. There's something old-fashioned-looking about tomatoes stuffed this way, but they tasted pretty good.

12 September 2019

Try to remember...

...the kind of September... That's what I'm doing this morning. For some reason, I decided to look back at some photos that I took in September 2004 — 15 years ago already, and the first year when we had a vegetable garden in Saint-Aignan. We had only been here for a year. And for eight years before that, we had been living in San Francisco, where summers were too chilly and damp for us to be able to grow tomatoes.

Here are some photos that I took on Sept. 2, 2004, of a tomato tart Walt and I had made. I'm trying to remember... what ingredients went into this tart? Tomatoes, clearly. Fresh from the vegetable garden, certainly. But what's under the tomatoes? I wasn't yet a blogger. It looks like there might be grated cheese under there. And I'm convincing myself that there might be a layer of Dijon mustard under the cheese, brushed onto the bottom of the pre-cooked pie shell.

I just found this recipe on the internet and it pretty much describes what I remember. It's called Tarte aux tomates et au fromage and it's made with Swiss cheese (Emmental), mozzarella, and oregano. I have those ingredients. This one we made seems to feature just chives, salt, and pepper sprinkled over the tomatoes, and I remember that there was a patch of chives growing out in the back yard when we came to live here in 2003.

Here's another French recipe I found on the internet that's titled Tarte tomate à la moutarde.  It calls for Comté cheese, which I really like, but I think the tart would also be good with ewe's milk cheese or goat cheese. Plus oregano (or other herbs). I can't find such a recipe among the 1,600 or so that I've collected over the years and digitized and organized into a kind of database. I'll have to  make a tart like this if I can get Walt to make a nice pie shell, which he does so well. There are many other recipes for this kind of tart here, so it seems to be a classic. Here's a recipe in English for the same kind of pie.

11 September 2019

Panzanella salad

This is my personal version of a panzanella salad — a bread salad that's originally Italian. It's a salad, originally, of tomato, cucumber, onion, and large toasted croutons. What makes it different is that you dress the salad and croutons with vinaigrette and let it "marinate" for an hour or so in the refrigerator so that the chunks of bread absorb some of the vinegar and oil dressing. Here's Jamie Oliver's recipe, and another recipe on a site called Serious Eats.

I substituted diced zucchini for the diced cucumber, and I put in roasted sweet red peppers that I bought at the supermarket. The tomatoes, zucchini, and basil that went into the salad came from our vegetable garden. I used a mix of red and yellow cherry tomatoes.

To make the salad into a full meal, I added some cut up roasted chicken breast and some diced cheese — mozzarella and a ewe's milk cheese (tomme de brebis) called Lou Pérac from the Averyron in south central France. We have both green and purple basil growing in this summer's garden.

The base of the salad is bread and lettuce. I had some crunchy butter lettuce, but something like romaine would be really good in it. And I had stale and frozen bread that I had saved for making croutons. I cut the bread up and tossed it with a little bit of olive oil before I toasted it in the oven.

Instead of onions, I put a diced shallot in the salad. Or in the dressing, actually. I put the diced shallot in vinegar — a combination of balsamic vinegar and white wine (Chardonnay) vinegar. In theory, soaking for 30 to 60 minutes in the vinegar will slightly "cook" the shallot and make it easier to digest. It also gives good flavor to the dressing, which also includes olive oil and some dried oregano.

Here's the salad on the plate, after being tossed with the dressing and put in the fridge to rest for an hour. I didn't think we would, but we ate the whole thing! It made a good lunch, and then I had the last of it as an evening snack. Delicious.

10 September 2019

Tardy tomates!

I was upstairs doing some work on my computer yesterday morning. Walt was out, I thought, watering the vegetable garden. When I came back downstairs, he was still outdoors, but a big bucket full of tomatoes was on the table in the kitchen. There was also a basket full of tomates on the floor. He had picked those a couple of days earlier. I decided to lay all the tomatoes out on the kitchen work table and "immortalize" them in a photo. It was also a good way to sort them. Quite a few had been damaged by heat and the hot sun, but they were salvageable, and pretty. Not to mention tasty.

The tomato crop has come in very late this summer (August 2009 post). It's almost mid-September, and looking back at my blog posts from past summers, I see that in some years we already had a lot of tomatoes in early August, and sometimes in late July. Mais mieux vaut tard que jamais... Better late than never. What do you do with a lot of damaged tomatoes? You trim them up, saving the good parts. And then you throw them in a big pot and make a batch of tomato sauce. A good amount of the sauce will go into the freezer for wintertime meals.

We saved out the best looking tomatoes, which were the ones that looked like they needed to ripen a little more. We'll prepare and eat those in different ways over the next week. With pasta, with mozzarella and basil, stuffed with tuna salad or mixed vegetables in mayonnaise, in tarts with Dijon mustard or quiches with eggs and cream... And there are still a lot of tomatoes out in the garden, ripening on the vines.

We also have about a zillion cherry tomatoes, some red and some yellow (or orange, I guess). Today I'm going to make what is called a panzanella salad — tomatoes, onions, cucumber (zucchini for us...), basil, toasted croutons, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.

09 September 2019

Du vin bleu ?

When you see the color of the so-called "red wine" grapes out in the vineyard,
you have to wonder why it isn't called "blue wine" instead of red.

The grapes below might be used in making "pink wine" — du vin rosé.

Les vendanges — the grape harvest — haven't started yet. Meanwhile, it feels like things here might be getting back to normal, after our long, hot, dry summer. All we need now is a string of rainy days to make us feel at home again.

08 September 2019

Zucchini boats with a goat-cheese filling

You could make it your life's work, or at least a multi-year project, to study and understand all the laws and regulations concerning visas and residence requirements for foreigners wanting to come into Europe and stay for a while. This guy seems to have done so. It's not something I want to do. I'm retired. I just want to live my life peacefully. And cook (and eat).

Last week, in our daily struggle to keep up with the zucchini crop, I made zucchini "boats" as they can be called. Courgettes farcies — stuffed zucchini, in other words. I happened to have some fresh goat cheese in the refrigerator (can't remember why I bought two or three logs of it the week before) and a big basket of unshelled walnuts from last year's crop. My thanks to the Couffy friends down the road who gave them to us. No, that's not an insult...

  1. Crack and shell some walnuts, saving whole pieces to use as decoration.
  2. Cut zucchini squashes lengthwise and, using a curved grapefruit knife and a spoon, scoop the seeds and pulp out of them. 
  3. Cook the pulp with diced onion and minced garlic in olive oil. Let it cool.
  4. Mash some fresh goat cheese with the cooked pulp-and-onion and fresh herbs.
  5. Grate hard, aged goat cheese into the mixture for flavor, along with toasted, chopped walnut pieces.
  6. Stir an egg or two and salt and pepper into the stuffing mixture.
  7. Stuff the zucchini boats with the mixture and bake them in the oven until they just start to turn golden brown. Pour a little water or wine into the oiled pan to steam the zucchini boats.
  8. Take the partially baked boats out of the oven and press whole walnut pieces onto the surface of the stuffing.
  9. Finish baking until golden brown.

    07 September 2019

    Renewing French residence cards (4)

    Read part 3 of this series here.

    After we had made the decision to apply for renewal of our resident alien status — that's what it's called in the U.S., I think — instead of applying for French citizenship, and had scheduled our rendez-vous with the people at the préfecture in Blois, we had to carry through. We had, or thought "we" had, a morning appointment on September 3 to turn in our papers.

    Just a couple of days before the rendez-vous date, it occurred to me that since Walt had actually scheduled the appointment, my name might not be on it. Well, I was right — it wasn't. In the past, back more than 10 years ago, the people a the préfecture, and also at the offices of the French Sécurité Sociale (which runs the national health insurance service) had always dealt with us as a couple, even though, legally, we weren't. After living together as a couple since 1983, we and people like us weren't allowed to get married until five or six years ago. It hadn't occurred to either of us that we would need separate appointments at the préfecture.

    So when we got there and had waited in line for 10 minutes or so, we found out that that was exactly the case. The very officious, self-important woman who checked people in for their appointments looked at the printout of the rendez-vous confirmation, looked at us, and asked which one of us it was for. We said it was for both of us. We told her we were a married couple. That doesn't matter, she said — one appointment, one person. Whose name is this on the paper? Walt said it was his. The woman looked at me and said I would have to go back home and make an appointment in my own name before I could turn in my application and the supporting documents. Damn! Isn't it ironic that before we were legally married, we were treated as a couple, and now that we actually are married we are not?

    Here's a North Carolina postcard for today.

    This was the woman who had told me on the phone back in June that I didn't really need a carte de résident. I recognized her voice and manner. Even without a card, or with an expired one, she said, I would still be able to move around freely in France. The problem is that over the past few years, at CDG airport as I was getting ready to fly out on a trip to the States, on at least one or maybe two occasions the agents who check passports had scanned my U.S. passport, looked up at me, and asked me to produce my French carte de résident. Luckily, I had it with me, and I showed it, and all went smoothly. I don't know what they would have done if I had said that I hadn't thought to bring it with me. Or if I showed them an expired card.

    So there I was. The préfecture receptionist was really officious, almost obnoxious, but I have to say she was very complimentary to Walt about how well he spoke French. That's always a nice thing for people to say. He gave her the papers she said he needed. She checked them sort of superficially, paper-clipped them together, and handed them back to him. Go wait over there, she said, and you will be called by name in a few minutes. She looked at me, too, as she said it. So I asked her, can I go in with my conjoint (spouse)? To my surprise, she said she didn't see why not. We went and sat down in the waiting room.

    Thinking back on it a day or two ago, one other surprising thing about the préfecture visit was that there was absolutely no security to go through as we entered. Nobody checking the contents of purses or briefcases. No metal detectors. Nothing. Anybody could just walk in off the street. These days, that's strange.

    Before long Walt's name was called. We walked down a hallway and went through door number 6 into a sort of office space. The woman we were meeting with didn't seem surprised to see two of us. She asked which one of us she was processing, and then I told her my story. Yes, she said, each person needs a separate rendez-vous, and that's true even for married couples. You'd think they could specify that on their web site, but never mind. The woman looked through Walt's papers, clipping documents together, entering information into her computer, and cutting apart the ID photos we had taken in a supermarket photo booth.

    I hope N.C. waters are now back to looking like this, with the storm long gone.

    After a minute or two, she looked up at us and said that the renewal application was very straightforward and it wouldn't take her long to process it, so she would go ahead and do mine as well. At one point, the gatekeeper/receptionist woman came into the office and told her colleague that she had explained to us that only one of us could be processed on that day, and that I would have to come back later. The woman processing the paperwork said, no, she was going to go ahead and process my application as well. It wouldn't take long. The receptionist mumbled something about that being okay if that was the best way to do things...

    The other woman, who was friendly and efficient, looked at the paperwork and focused on the name of our village. She asked us where it was in relation to Blois — I guess she'd never heard of it. The receptionist who had popped in and told her it was pretty far from Blois, near Saint-Aignan — maybe a 40-minute drive. I interjected that we had allowed an hour and a half to make the trip, including time for finding a parking space near the préfecture and for preliminaries like standing in line. Oh, then I'll definitely process your application too, because that's a long drive. Now you know, and in 10 years when you come in for your next renewal, make sure that you schedule two separate appointments!

    As she was entering data on the computer and clipping papers together, I mentioned that we had read somewhere that an applicant over the age of 60 or maybe 65 was supposed to be eligible for something called a carte de résident permanent. She said she would have to look up the requirements for that, and she did. Yes, she said. If you are over 60 — I'm 70, I told her — you are given a carte de résident permanent upon renewal of you first 10-year carte de résident. She said the "permanent" card would still carry an expiration date 10 years out, so I'm not sure what it all means, but I'll take it. The woman looked at Walt and asked him how old he was. Fifty-nine, he said. I added "and nine months!" Oh, too bad, the woman said, I guess you'll have to come back for another renewal in 10 years' time.

    Then she pulled out a scanner and took a full set of our fingerprints to include in our files. Finally, she asked us to wait for a minute while she went and made us up temporary documents extending the expiration dates on our current resident's cards so that they would remain valid for three months longer. That's the récépissé I mentioned in an earlier post — the one the disagreeable receptionist had said they wouldn't be able to give us for a carte de résident. I wonder how that woman keeps her job, since she gives out so much bad information. I guess it's none of my business.

    I can only assume that Cape Lookout lighthouse near Morehead City is still standing.

    Not much more than 30 minutes after we had arrived, in spite of everything, we were out the door with our old resident's cards in hand, along with the récépissés that extend their validity. We were told our new cards should be ready for pick-up around the first week of October. I'm holding my breath, hoping there are no further snags.

    The resident's card renewal appointment turned out to be as anti-climactic as Hurricane Dorian was around Morehead City in North Carolina. A lot of trees blew over in the 100 mph winds, there was some flooding, and there were extensive power outages, but there was little serious damage, as far as I can tell. On Ocracoke Island to the north, which is reachable only by air or boat and where about a thousand people live, the flooding was much worse. I guess more news will be reported about it all today. It's the middle of the night over there as I type this.

    06 September 2019

    Renewing French residence cards (3)

    Read part 2 of this series here.

    Okay, I need to talk about the naturalization/citizenship vs. long-term residence question. Walt and I had spent a lot of time over the past five years gathering up all the documents we needed, and getting them notarized and translated for a citizenship request. A lot of those documents had to be obtained in the U.S. — birth certificates, for example, as well as the international notarization forms called apositlles for each U.S. document, to prove that they are authentic. On our regular trips to the U.S. to see family and friends, we would devote some days to going to get documents we needed to become French citizens.

    As you can imagine, we spent many dollars getting the documents and then many euros  to get them translated by a court-sanctioned translator here in France. We found a good translator up in Blois, and we spent time working with her to prepare the documents by transcribing the hand-written ones on the computer so that she would be able to read them. We also spent time consulting with the translator on how to interpret American terminology having to do with counties, towns, cities, and villages.

    Then for me, all hell broke loose when my mother learned that she had cancer. I made five, I think it was, trips back to the U.S. in less than three years to be there with her, my sister, and our closest cousin and to talk to doctors and other care-givers. All the physical and mental stress of that ordeal led me to put the citizenship application on the back burner, until my mother passed away a year and a half ago. It took me a year, I realize now, to grieve and to recover mentally and physically from those trials.

    And all of a sudden, it was 2019 and our resident's permits were going to expire. You probably know that getting citizenship is a long process, even after you've got all the documents and translations the government needs. In our case, citizenship applications are handled over in Tours, which is farther away than Blois and a much bigger city. I never got far enough in the process to find out if the officials over there would accept dossiers by mail, or if you had to go over there in person to submit your forms and paperwork.

    Here's today's coastal North Carolina postcard.

    I follow a Facebook group where people going through the naturalization process give each other support, information, and advice. You are probably aware that the United Kingdom — made up of the countries of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland — has been going through a process and crisis for three years now that is just the opposite of naturalization. They are trying to withdraw from the European Union. There are at least 150,000 U.K. citizens living in France, and there may be as many as half a million — numbers are hard to come by, because as long as the U.K. is still a member of the European Union, its citizens are allowed to move to France to live and work here with no formalities or red tape at all. For them, it's like American citizens moving from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, say. They can just pack up the car and move and not have to worry about visas, customs, and border controls.

    Nowadays there's a little bit of panic in the air here. A lot of U.K. (British) citizens are realizing that they'd better prepare for the day when they will be treated the same way Americans and other non-Europeans are by France — as actual foreigners who need visas and either resident's permits or citizenship to live here. Sixteen years ago, Walt and I worked on getting our visas for months before we left the U.S. to move over here. It got pretty complicated, because we started the process in California, where we had been living for more than 15 years. We sold our house out there and stayed with generous friends for a month or so after we became "homeless." Then we thought we'd better move on, so we packed up the Jeep and a U-Haul trailer and drove across the country with our suitcases and the dog, to go spend the rest of our time in the U.S. at my mother's in North Carolina.

    It took us a week to drive across the U.S., visiting friends along the way. We still didn't have our visas, but we had our fingers crossed that they would actually come through before too long. We had already had a container-load of our furniture, clothes, books, and other possessions sent off to France on a ship. I don't know what we would have done if we had been refused visas by France. As it turned out, just two or three days after we got to N.C., the phone rang and we learned that our visas had been granted and we could go ahead and move to France, where we had already bought our house. However, the people at the French consulate in San Francisco told us that we would need to come pick up the visas in person!

    I told them we were in North Carolina, 2500 miles away. Could we have the visas sent to the consulate that serves the southeastern U.S. states and then go pick them up there? They said yes, but they required that I send them a pre-paid Federal Express envelope to ship them in. And the consulate we needed to drive to was in Atlanta — that's a eight-hour drive from the N.C. coast, where we were staying at the time. So we threw some clothes and the dog in the Jeep and started driving as soon as we were notified that the visas had arrived in Atlanta. We spent the night, of course, and we took the dog with us because we didn't want my mother to have to take care of her (my mother's yard was not fenced in). You get the idea — it was pretty complicated and expensive. At least we got to see Savannah and Charleston, which neither of us had ever visited, on our way back to N.C., visas in hand.

     Pelicans and the Cape Lookout lighthouse in Carteret County, North Carolina

    So you get the idea. When we finally got to France in June 2003, we had to go to Blois and apply for residence permits immediately. We had interviews at the préfecture. We had chest x-rays to make sure we didn't have tuberculosis, and urine samples taken to make sure we didn't have any STDs. And I don't remember what all. For the first five or six years, we had to re-apply annually to have our permits renewed. We translated documents. We sent in bank statements every year to prove that we had the financial resources to live here without seeking employment (we had residence permits but not work permits). We drove back and forth to Blois I don't know how many times to turn in papers and pick up new permits. No matter — we were young and energetic in those years. Finally, in 2009, I called the authorities in Blois and asked if we qualified for a 10-year residence card. If you have, for example, a retirement pension, you do, I was told. And I did. So for 10 years we didn't have to renew our permits — until now.

    Last year, I came to feel that we had to choose between continued residence (the equivalent of a U.S. green card) and citizenship. All those British people (and some Americans and people from other countries) who live here started seeking naturalization. The whole French system started scrambling to process all the applications they were receiving. The process started taking months, even years. People send in piles of paperwork, waited many months, or even a year or more, for a decision. Sometimes they just got all their documents sent back to them, rejected. Oh, and there are also language requirements, of course. Until Brexit happens, British people don't have to be able to speak French in order to come live and work in France. Proving you can speak French, however, is a requirement of citizenship, and applicants have to be able to pass language tests.

    Walt and I speak French, so that's not a problem, and we had all the documents and translations, but we also needed to have our residence permits renewed this year. We couldn't live here without them, even if we had already started the naturalization process, which could take a year or more. Re-applying for legal residence and simultaneously launching the process of getting citizenship was an overwhelming prospect. So we opted for renewed residence. There's nothing, really, to prevent us from now requesting citizenship by getting all the paperwork together, filling out the forms (we had already started), and sending them in. But at my age, I might not outlive my 10 year residence card anyway...

    Meanwhile, this morning CNN is carrying non-stop reports about Hurricane Dorian as it rides up the coast of North Carolina. It hasn't yet arrived at Morehead City, but it's very close now. There were tornadoes about 20 miles west of Morehead yesterday. Wishing everybody all the best luck.

    05 September 2019

    Renewing French residence cards (2)

    Read part 1 of this series here.

    On the Blois préfecture's web site describing the resident's card renewal process, we saw this instruction: Dans les deux mois qui précèdent la date d'expiration de votre carte de résident, vous devez consulter [le site web de votre préfecture] pour connaître les modalités d'accueil pratiquées par la préfecture compétente. In English, that says that during the two-month period before the expiration date on your residence card, you should consult your local préfecture's web site to see how the process of turning in the required forms and documents is organized.

    I think some préfectures accept applications by mail. It turns out that ours doesn't. Everything has to be submitted in person, and you have to have appointment arranged in advance. That meant we would need to drive up to Blois (it takes about an hour) to turn in the application. If we didn't have all the documents we needed, the application would be rejected. We'd have to drive back home, do some more work, get another appointment, and drive back up to Blois again, so we needed to be thorough and careful.

    Our residence cards were set to expire on September 10. That meant we were supposed to figure out in July what all the requirements were. Well, we started well before that, and in June (a month early) we decided to try to make an appointment for later in the summer. You have to make the appointment on-line, on the préfecture's web site. Walt looked up the page, and he quickly learned that the first available appointments were for September 3.

    That seemed to me to be cutting it very close, because they don't just hand you a card while you're there at the préfecture for your appointment. It can take several weeks, if not a month or more for the application to be processed and the card to be printed and laminated. Only then do you get a notification by mail that you can go back to the préfecture in Blois and pick it up. I decided to pick up the phone and call the préfecture to see if there was any way to make an appointment earlier. I wasn't sure anyone would answer the phone...

    Here's today's North Carolina postcard. That skiff with the black outboard motor was the "ferry" we had taken over to Cape Lookout
    on that day in 2002. It was only about a four-mile cruise. I was getting nervous about the weather, but all went well.

    The woman who finally answered the phone was less than helpful. She said, basically, that she didn't understand why people (meaning, of course, foreigners) thought they could do everything at the last minute. That set the tone — Walt and I were actually starting the process a month early. We're busy up here at the préfecture, the woman said, and the next available appointments are in September.

    I asked her if, when we turned in our papers on September 3 (assuming they wouldn't be rejected), we would be given a temporary card or some other document (it's called a récépissé) that would prove to anybody who wanted to see the residence card — which would have expired by then — that our application had been turned in and was being processed. We didn't want to be considered illegal.

    No, the woman on the phone said, we don't give out anything like that. You're on your own, in other words. Then she said: Really, monsieur, you don't even need a residence card. You can move about freely in France without one — there's no problem. I couldn't believe she'd tell me that. I told her that the préfecture ought to revise its web site to tell applicants that they needed to set up an appointment not two months in advance but four or even six months. I can't do anything about that, she told me. Come in for your appointment on September 3. I thanked her coldly, but politely, and hung up.

    What a strange and stressful summer it has been. First, there was the new bathroom, meaning chaos in the house and people in and out all the time. Then we had three separate heat waves, with temperatures outside up to 100ºF, sometimes higher, and up to 95 in the house. That was exhausting. Then I had a colonoscopy in July — that required four trips to Blois and back. Luckily, the result was good. But I've been stressed out for months, mentally and physically. Now, on top of all this, Hurricane Dorian is moving up the U.S. coast toward the place where my family and so many friends live...

    Read part 3 of this series here.

    04 September 2019

    Renewing French residence cards (1)

    We went to the préfecture in Blois yesterday for an appointment with the people at the Service des migrations et de l'intégration ("integration" means language requirements, basically — how you will "fit" in French society). In France, the préfecture is the building or complex where the administrative offices and services of a département or "county" are located. It takes us nearly an hour to drive up there from Saint-Aignan. Our département, the Loir-et-Cher, has a population of 330,000 or so, and no big cities, only big towns.

    Getting an appointment at all was a fairly bumpy ride. We hadn't had to go to the préfecture in a decade, because in 2009 we were both successful in obtaining residence cards that were valid for 10 years. It was time to renew them. When we were granted the residence cards in 2009, we were told, or I read somewhere, that renewal in 2019 would be automatic unless some big problem or issue came up in the meantime (like being convicted of committing a crime, which neither of us has been...).

    Here's your North Carolina postcard for the day. The current hurricane has starting moving northward up the coast, and N.C. is in the path.

    In the spring, when we starting looking into the current rules and administrative procedures for renewing our residence cards, we found information on the official French government web site explaining the process. There was an application form to fill out, and there were several documents to be gathered up — copies of passport pages, copies of electricity or phone bills to prove our current address, a "tax stamp" costing 300 euros to buy, ID photos to be taken — and then turned in. Applicants need different sets of documents depending on whether they are citizens of a European Union country or a country outside the EU.

    That made sense, because people from EU countries, or at least most of them, don't even need residence cards except in special cases. A lot of British expats are busy applying for residence or citizenship right now, with Brexit looming, in an effort to stay ahead of the game. Non-Europeans like us definitely do need residence cards, no matter what. Requirements are different, too, if you are requesting a new card or are asking for a change in your residence status. Simple renewals are less complicated.

    There are many different titres de séjour — "extended-stay permits" is the broad administrative category for all sorts of residence cards — including short-term permits for U.S. students or tourists, for example, who want to stay in France for more than three months, and long-term permits for people who, like us, live here, and so on. You have to be sure you've figured out your category before you start filling out forms and preparing your documentation.

    03 September 2019

    Storm clouds over the Atlantic

    No, this wasn't a hurricane moving in. It was just a cold front passing over Cape Lookout, North Carolina, in September 2002. I had flown in from California to spend time with family. When I got back to California, Walt and I went on a car and camping trip to Yosemite Valley, Death Valley, and the southern California desert. On that trip, I decided to quit my job and start a new life. Burnout! A couple of months later, Walt and I would fly to France and find the house where we have lived since 2003, near Saint-Aignan, on the Cher River, in the Loire Valley region.

    From current reports, the ocean at Cape Lookout will look like like this or a lot worse later this week. There's not much to say about Hurricane Dorian because it's stalled over Grand Bahama Island, a thousand kilometers south of Cape Hatteras. That might be its next target, but nobody really knows where it will go when it starts moving again. I shudder to think what Grand Bahama will look like when we get our first reports from there.

    Current forecasts have Dorian passing pretty much directly over my home town of Morehead City, in North Carolina, but as I said, nobody really knows. Morehead is right on a south-facing part of the N.C. coast, a hundred miles southeast of Cape Hatteras. It's only Tuesday, and the hurricane will be a threat to the U.S. coast for about four more days, they say. It could weaken or it could strengthen. It could move onshore or it could veer out to sea.

    02 September 2019

    North Carolina postcards

    Here in Saint-Aignan, we actually had a little bit of rain yesterday morning, and that's a good thing. What's going on in the Bahamas and will likely happen along the whole Atlantic coast of the southeastern U.S. is a very bad thing. I can't think about much else. It is hard to imagine wind speeds of 185 m.p.h. That's about 300 kilometers per hour, and those winds will be from the east, pushing water and waves on shore north of the eye of the hurricane as it hugs the coast.

    This week I'll be giving you some digital postcards from coastal North Carolina. I took the photos exactly 17 years ago.
    Do you think these rocks will protect this house from a storm surge?

    The land along the 1,000 miles of coastline being threatened by Hurricane Dorian is very low-lying. For example, in Morehead City, the town in North Carolina where I come from, the highest point of land is 16 feet, or about 5 meters, above sea level. It wouldn't take much of a storm surge to submerge the whole place. They say the storm surge on Grand Bahama Island today will be about 20 feet high.

    01 September 2019

    2018 storm damage in my North Carolina home town

    Well, Hurricane Dorian could continue turning to the northeast and pretty much miss the southern coast of North Carolina, where I grew up and where much of my family and a lot of friends live. The winds in the storm shouldn't be as dangerous once it gets that far north, but if the storm stalls high rainfall totals could be a real problem. Again.

    This building is called the "curb market" in Morehead City, North Carolina, where I was born and raised. Local market gardeners, farmers, fishermen, and other local people can bring garden produce, fish, shellfish, and baked goods to the market on summertime Saturday mornings and sell them there. I've read that it was the first such market established in N.C., so is the oldest. It started in the early 1930s, but the building dates back to the early 1940s. It's located just a five-minute walk from the house I grew up in and where my mother lived from 1951 until 2005. I took the photo above in 2014, when volunteers (including members of my family — they know who they are!) were preparing the building for its opening in May.

    Here's what the curb market building looked like about a year ago after Hurricane Florence roared through the area. There was talk about having it torn down. Finally, the county board of commissioners decided over the winter that it should be saved and repaired. Roof shingles had blown off so that there was a lot of water damage to the interior in addition to the big porch roof's collapse. Tables, other furniture, and appliances were lost. A lot of local people were really happy that the market would be able to continue operating, and it re-opened for the 2019 summer season.

    Above is a photo of the curb market during the repairs. I grabbed the two photos above off the Morehead City Curb Market's Facebook pages. I don't think anybody will mind. Damage from the September 2018 hurricane was not limited to the curb market building, of course. Many private homes were damaged as well, and quite a few have not yet been completely repaired, I understand. And now here comes another bad storm.

    31 August 2019

    Feuilles de vigne, et un ouragan

    This slideshow is made up of just six photos of grapevine leaves. I think a slideshow is the best way to display them. You won't have to scroll around, and I won't be tempted to write a lot of text just to fill in gaps between static images. And it will take you only a minute or so to see them.

    I'm pretty preoccupied with the news of Hurricane Dorian right now. It's a monster storm that's headed for Florida, where Walt and I both have family members and friends. Twenty million people live in Florida and millions more are there as visitors and tourists. In addition, this is a major holiday weekend in the U.S.

    Hurricane Dorian, with winds at 200+ kph, is headed toward the central Florida coast and is then
    predicted to ride the warm-water Gulf Stream up to the North Carolina coast, 800 kilometers north.

    Now predictions are for the storm to ride up the U.S. southeast coast, pulled along by the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, toward my home town in North Carolina, Morehead City. Most of my family and many old friends of mine still live there. I worry about them. The town is on very low-lying, marshy, sandy coastal land and is highly vulnerable to hurricane-force winds and flooding.