Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Saignant or Well Cooked

I said I would explain a little about the micro climate that provides Montpellier with circa 300 days of sunshine per year, yes I know how sickening is that when currently in the UK there is flooding and wide scale rain showers. Last weekend there was cloud coverage all over France apart from Montpellier why?? Not really sure and in all honesty I don't think anyone else really knows the real reason. It may have something to do with the fact that to the north lies the foothills of the Massive Central, what we call the Cevennes. This provides a protective 1500m mountain curtain which locks in the clear Mediterranean blue skies. Most of the southern coastline of France has a similar characteristic which is thin band of land coming from the sea and climbing steeply around the Cote d'Azure to the Alps/Dolomites and as you work your way west the band of land becomes wider and the mountains are replaced by Massive of the Cevennes leading into the Pyrenees towards the Spanish border.

Last year was a real struggle in the summer, well I suppose it started around march time really and lasted though until the end of September. Le canicule or heat-wave that seemed to go on and on and on. Numerous people died in all over France and Europe and day to day activities here are most definitely more challenging in 45º temperatures. It's common to have more than 40º so people just struggle through but having been coming here for over 12 years the climate certainly seems to have become hotter combined with a certain dryness which really cuts the throat when you're doing anything that requires physical exertion.

I've become used to perspiration or should I rephrase that and say the glow factor. If I turn to say hi to someone as I'm walking along I know I will glow some more. Air con in your car is a necessity and comes as standard in most new cars - it's certainly more tolerable being in a car than meandering along by foot. If you drive with the car window down and your elbow out of the car window be warned... The sun is relentless and the burn is agonising but of course you don't realise it at the time because the wind cools the skin and the result only becomes apparent when you stop!!

I think this year we may install air-conditioning in our house due to the fact that sleeping is far from easy with super high temperatures. But that's on my jobs to do list so I will keep you posted on that one. I mention it because it certainly better to have it than to be without it. Lack of sleep most definitely screws everyone's working day or just doing what you want to do.

I'm not a big fan of the summer here due to the heat and the numbers of tourists. On the flip side - outside of the peak season it certainly is a great place to be. I've never surfed barefoot in the UK on Christmas day or kite-surfed in January in 20 degrees looking at the snow on the peaks of the Cevenne to the north. I like my steak saignant - which is less than medium but more than rare and in these temperatures the juices of the meat certainly help with hydration.

PS - I've just been wondering to myself, is anyone reading this blog? If so let me know what you think.

Monday, 25 June 2007

Grease, Fete and Cheers

I've been diabetic now for over 42 years and please don't let me hear you pause to think ooh I'm really sorry to read that because, that is a typical French response. Why am I sharing this with you? Well, it's not for the sympathy vote, please let me reassure you but I have during my lifetime visited doctors and hospitals let's say more than most. One of the most positive things I have found since living in France is they do have an incredible health service. It would be very easy to criticise the UK system but this I feel serves little purpose. The system functions in the UK and is a relatively free paperless exercise. By comparison you have to contribute to the system here and each visit 'chez le Docteur' costs circa 25 Euros! Of course you claim it back via your 'carte vitale' and medical insurance but you physically have to put your hand into your pocket and pay for the service. So let me share with you a classic experience.

Now I have mentioned my dearest mother-in-law previously, way back in 1999 I had to visit the Doctor with my son and my mother-in-law. The doctor was a child specialist so she felt she had to escort me. This was the first time I had visited a medical specialist in France. The Doc did his thing checked my boys ears and fiddled about as they do and then towards the end of the visit my mother-in-law turned to me and tapped her bottom. What a strange gesture I thought and it never dawned on me that she was intimating that I had to pay the Doctor. I'd never had to pay my GP in the UK so this was completely foreign to me. She then coughed and repeated the tapping gesture and I shrugged my shoulders and asked what was the issue. I must point out that my French at this point was not particularly fluent. Chris are you gong to pay the Doctor my mother-in-law enquired, in an embarrassed like manner? I felt for my wallet and realised that I had left it in the car, upon trying to explain this there was all sorts of commotion and as I left the room to fetch it my mother-in-law paid the fee! Boy was she uptight that I had forgotten to pick up my wallet, so much to say that I was reminded for several years about this insignificant little incident even though I reimbursed her upon returning to the car. On the flip side I always carry a few Euros with me these days. This was a simple alien incident for me - I'd never had to pay a doctor directly so it was the furthest thing from my mind.

All things are smooth on the medical front here but it also helps when you know people within the system. You get to know who is good and who is not so good. Plus if you know someone who's senior things move just that little bit quicker. Like all things it's not what you know but who you know that makes the world go around. But generally things move quick here by comparison to my medical experience of the UK.

So what's been happening since my last post? Well...

Thursday was the June the 21st and the first official day of summer. Yippee I hear you cry...

Here summer is, how shall I put it... Crowded! The tourists arrive and the beaches become mayhem but hey that's just the way it is and don't forget it can take up to 3 hours to get back from the beach when normally it takes 20 mins. We're in the south of France and its normal during the summer. Thursday was also the Fete de Musique. Party party... We went to the town centre and it was throbbing lots of bands playing, lots and lots of people and a nice atmosphere. Depending upon where you go in the town you can listen to different types of music. Jazz, Acoustic Folk, Hip Hop, Garage, Pop, Classical you name it you can find it with dancers, traditional, modern it is a party that is celebrated all over France on the 21st June. Well worth a long weekend visit just for the party. It happens in every town and most villages at some point over a weekend.

Friday evening was Le fete de l'ecole - boy that was a very smoky evening as I was helping to cook on the BBQ. We must have sizzled 2000 Sausages and Merquez. After seeing all the grease fuel the BBQ it didn't do much to muster up my appetite. Most off putting although the 3 glasses of chilled rosé was most welcomed - cheers :o)

The weekend was warm. Cool Saturday morning, which was great for the 96km bike ride up the back-side of Arboras (a local climb to an observatory - excuse my french!) followed by lunch in town and a some what chilled out afternoon. Sunday was not so good as I had come down with Tonsillitis - ugh. Distinct advantage of knowing your GP really well in France; being able to call him, describe the symptoms and having a pharmacist as a wife who can interpret the telephone diagnosis - antibiotics at 9.30 Sunday morning delivered to the bedside.

Next post I promise to detail how the heat really cooks ones brain in the Micro Climate of Montpellier - bonsoir

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Road Cycling and the Yellow Belt

I have been married for 10 years this September, 10 blissful happy years, not a crossed word nor a moment of discontent - you know how marriage can be so perfect! On the flip side... (I have a big wry smile on my face) Relationships demand continual input from both parties, I love my wife to bits, I know that she feels the same about me and we love our son like - well you can only understand that if you have children of your own.

In fact we were super proud today when our boy received his first yellow Judo belt. 8 years old as proud as punch, in fact during the demonstration put on especially for the parents, my tiger threw an adult instructor over his shoulder on more than one occasion. I guess in reality I was also feeling as proud as him, if not more so :o) Sport in France plays a major part in the lives of everyone - on reflection I think more so than in the UK. This obviously depends on each individual because I'm fully aware that if you want to participate in the UK, it's not a problem. Here in the south of France the weather certainly has it's advantages - endless numbers of good quality skate parks that are used by skaters, skate boarders, roller bladers, BMX'ers, high numbers of ball sport clubs including rugby which features high on the agenda in this part of the world. Watersports care of the Mediterranean and surrounding rivers and numerous outdoor adventures including pot holing, caving, ropes courses, walking and cycling, which is just off the scale. One thing you will have to get used to is that everything stops for the kids on Wednesdays!! Including work for many people. Kids here go to school - Mon, Tues, Thurs and Fri some go on Wednesday morning but my boy has the day off every week. Of course the flip side is it really screws your working week up and some kids have to go to school on a Saturday morning which also screws your weekend! Of course that's normal here so you either like it, lump it or put your kids into a private school. It's just the way it is!

Cycling here, is as I mentioned earlier off the scale. It doesn't matter what sort of riding you like everything is well accommodated. So you're not a sports rider but you like the idea of meandering around town exploring the historic buildings. Fantastic - park your car in the underground parking, bang in the centre of Montpellier and pick up a bike care of the Local Council, (Montpellier Agglomeration) you have to leave a deposit but the cost is less than 5 Eu and you can ride it for as long as you like. There are some 290Km of cycle tracks in and around the city so you can get from town to the coast (9km) if you're feeling up to it. Mountain biking here is called VTT or Velo Tout Terrain and this goes way off the scale. You can choose from easy right through to extreme rides and you don't have to drive or ride that far to be in the Cevennes national park; dropping down some very technical downhill routes. Lots of VTT competitions for all the family that are very well organised.

Road cycling, as you are probably aware, is a national phenomena here. The Tour de France starts in a couple of weeks and this mesmerises all and his dog. TV coverage, radio reports, newspaper articles, talk in the bars it is truly bizarre. However... I too took to road cycling at the beginning of 2006 - I couldn't believe it at first either.

Having realised that I was living this kind of reclusive lifestyle, that I described in a previous entry, I looked to meet other expatriates in the area to network and swap notes (to see if anyone was experiencing the same sorts of frustrations). After contacting the British Consulate in Marseilles to enquire if there were any British business or family associations I was bluntly informed that my best option would be to start one as nothing in this area existed! This was a definite blank. One day I was recounting this to my wife's pharmacy business partner and he suggested going out for ride with his local cycling club. This could serve a number of reasons, firstly fitness, secondly networking and meeting new people, thirdly I would be forced to communicate in French. Not a bad idea I thought.

Problem Number 1. No road bike - solution change the tyres on my VTT (Mountain Bike) Problem resolved.

So Saturday morning 7.30am I pitch up to the meeting car park and wait, of course I'm early and no one else is around but slowly a bunch of guys congregate to form a group of about 25 guys (sorry no ladies in this club yet). Lots and lots of very light very expensive road race bikes and numerous puzzled looks at my Trek VTT with suspension forks and road race tyres. I guess I was the Crazee Engleesh Guy at whom they could mock... So we set off and the speed didn't seem to fast everyone was very polite and inquisitive, simple short bursts of French and then silence whilst we tackled the climbs. 60km later the legs were beginning to feel tired and we still had 30km to go - of course I was completely lost, disorientated and slightly worried about my blood sugar level, as I suffer from diabetes but the guys were fantastic, they had seen it before with nubies and I wouldn't be the last one, so Philippe & Noel stuck with me, talked me home and made it quite clear that I had to get a road bike if I was serious about riding on a regular basis. Thanks guys - it sure was a relief to get back to our starting point - boy did I sleep that afternoon. Well and truly cream crackered.

I never thought of myself as a cyclist, my physical build is far from ideal 90 kilos and large shoulders, plus my diabetes can be fun on those really tough climbs when the sun is cooking everything it touches but I thought to myself this is a great way of networking, getting to know the local lay of the land and building a social circle of contacts, friends + improving my language skills. So one and half years later I ride 2 to 3 times a week, Saturday morning with the club and a couple of early mornings during the week to keep myself in form. My wife's business partner Philippe, ex president of the bike club, helped me in my quest to buy a road race bike by telling my wife it was essential that I had one - he's a good lad and now a good friend. Of course the bike I bought was at the time fantastic but as I have ridden it more and more for some reason one has the impression that the bike has become heavier and heavier. On the climbs like Mount Ventoux (one of the renowned French mountains) every gram in excess weight seems like a kilo so I am gunning for a new bike at present.

The cycling experience has made a big difference to how I feel about living here. 2 years on I can speak and read French to a reasonably good level - far from perfect but my god the grammar is incredibly challenging. The friendships I have formed are not what you'd call rock solid buddies but I now have a network of people I can bounce ideas with. So the flip side to this little experience is without any shadow of a doubt find an interest or a sport and get involved in it asap, if you sit on the side line waiting for things to come to you the opportunities will pass you by and you'll never get the chance to wear the yellow jersey let alone the yellow belt.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Are mosquito's miniature Vampires?

Arriving in a country where the spoken language is different to your mother tongue posses a number of obvious challenges but...

And I have to say, yet again, wait for it...

A number of issues which manifest themselves in all sorts of bizarre ways. Not only is there a challenge with day to day communication; and I thought I spoke reasonably good French, the culture is different consequently you struggle to have a simple laugh. Food shopping takes at least twice the amount of time. You become apprehensive about using the phone to communicate. You feel really tired towards the end of the day due to two major factors, firstly your brain is working extra hard to comprehend what's going on and secondly, the heat. I'll cover how hot it gets here in a separate blog. You can't make innuendoes of any sort because you don't want to upset anyone - my world started to become a droll day to day existence as I found myself living - life behind the blue gate.

In the early stages my life in France consisted of:
06.45 Alarm - shower and ready my son for school
07.30 Breakfast
07.40 Sophie leaves for work
08.00 Undo the large blue entrance gate that protects us from the Rat Race
08.03 Raphaël and I leave for school on the push bike, skateboard, scooter or roller blades
08.25 Huge hug for the day and reminder to listen, do as your told and not but in
08.40 Return home via the blue gate that keeps the Rat Race out
08.43 Yet another day of silence - day after day after day

16.25 Undo the blue gate that protects us from the outside world
16.28 Off to pick up Raphaël from school
16.45 School bell rings and I'm reunited with my son
17.05 Return home via the blue gate that keeps the outside world from us
18.45 Evening meal for Raphaël
19.45 Bed and story for Raphaël
20.25 Sophie returns home from a regular days work
20.45 Evening meal that I prepared earlier
24.00 The banquette begins - eaten alive by those god darned mosquito's

During the day I searched long and hard for jobs, I wanted to to work and continue my career in design and marketing, I busied myself and just found things to do to keep my mind occupied but slowly and unknown to myself I started slipping into a terrible trance like state. I had never experienced anything like it previously. It was a strange mindful eerie development metamorphosing itself as - a total loss of confidence!!

Oh shit - me, a loss of confidence that's impossible, totally and utterly ridiculous. I'm a man of steel, let's have a laugh John, did you hear the one about the three nuns...

But there you have it - I couldn't communicate competently in French and as a result I found myself living a solitary lifestyle at the age of 43 behind our blue gate - and it took me a good deal of time to realise just what was going on. And to top it off the flip side is that my wife doesn't get eaten by those god darned mosquito's; that seem to rule the roost here after midnight, whereas they seem to love the taste of my now confidence less English blood. Or perhaps it has something to do with my christian name being Christopher Lee either way I'm certain those blood suckers are miniature vampires.

It can't get any worse surely?

Monday, 18 June 2007

Wam Bam - Ohana

So there we were, happily or not so as the case turns out, living in Northampton. A small 2 bedroom bungalow with half an acre of land, backing onto a protected spiny, NN1 postal location, everything seemed to be fine and dandy. Of course on the wish list; living closer to the beach was always one of my high priorities but at 42 you kind of just reassure yourself that travelling a couple of hours to the coast was no big deal. You can only kid yourself for so long!

One evening in May 2004, my wife Sophie piped up and told me that she wanted to go back to live in Montpellier. That came right out of the blue, so was somewhat shocking to say the least. Her mother, an infamous Mediterranean darling; who has doted over me for the last 10 years - NOT, had found her a job and she was adamant to get her daughter and grandson back to her home town. To cut a long story short I was left holding the broom to tidy up the loose UK ends, whilst my wife took our son to France so that he would be able to start the new academic year without any hassle.

The flip side to this wonderful UK based decision was that it took over 13 months for me to sell our house and as a result I spent a long time away from my family but like all things when you put the ball in motion you have to go with it regardless of the consequences. Lots of too-ing and fro-ing and of course the inevitable tears for everyone but hey ho it all came good in the end. Well at least that is what I have been telling myself.

I finally got to living in Montpellier full time at the end of July 2005. It was a long old slog and emptying a house on your own is most definitely an arduous task. A big thank you goes out to Corey Adcook who was a friend and a big support whilst my family were not there in the latter stages. Most house owners will appreciate that moving house is supposed to be one of life's most stressful activities, well let me share with you the compounding effect of changing your country residence, tying up all the loose ends, council tax, UK tax office, closing down your business, fiscal details - the list seems never ending when your right in amongst it. But I had my list and eventually it got completed.

On reflection - I guess when I arrived I was slighted twisted and I did feel let down by my wife. This has only just really dawned on me as I write this blog entry. She had walked away and I had independently taken on the task of sorting the UK end out. Grrrrrrrrrr I hadn't realised that I was so stressed by it. Aghh well as you get older I guess you learn to mellow a little. Keeping cool when things get really messy takes a lot of control - oh... and I almost forgot to tell you:

Whilst I was living on my own, the house was broken into and messed up, that wasn't such a problem as most of our belongings were already in France and then a few days later the shed was broken into and my steadfast Cannondale Mountain Bike was stolen - but I kept my chin up because there seemed little point in being any other way. The police confirmed that since the Gipsies had arrived and set up camp in the town, the crime rate had gone off the scale. We had continued to pay our insurance so things were sorted out via claims.

Lots and lots of opportunity to really go off the rails - let me tell you. However, it did come to fruition in the end. So what is the flip side to this encounter of stress, house selling, moving and sorting things out. I guess in essence if you have the opportunity to tackle it together, side by side, in a good old British way, fa na fa na, choose to do it like that because 'Ohana means family and family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.'. (Lilo & Stitch - 2002 Disney)

Sunday, 17 June 2007

In the Beginning

So... Why start writing and contributing to the never ending stream of blogs ??

Well I've been living in Montpellier, France for almost 2 years and let me tell you first and foremost I am writing to share with you my experience of frustration, the necessity to communicate in my mother tongue and hopefully paint a clearer picture about 'the Flip Side' of jumping on a plane and living in another country. There are many plusses don't get me wrong but one has to be fully aware that over 60% of the English folks that move to France return to the UK within a relatively short period of time.

I had a distant but good friend come to stay with me last week, Peter Close (I didn't realise just how many things we had in common and I don't think either of us realised just how strong our friendship was), I read with great interest his blog, Etape or Bust, that details his preparation for an attempt to complete the most difficult stage of the Tour de France 07; in the Mountains of the Pyrenees. It was a sporting challenge laid down to him by some of his medical colleagues and as an individual who doesn't like to say no; he accepted it with open arms. He's now cycling to raise money for the Prostate cancer charity so take a peak at his blog via the links - it makes for a very interesting read and if you can please consider making a donation.

So I thought to myself... How can I create a blog that people want to come back to time and time again ?? What can I discuss that people will find interesting, different or stimulating ?? Is there anything I can share ??

And I thought... And I thought... And I thought and I thought..

And then it dawned on me that by sharing my experience of transferring my life to another country perhaps I could help people take a more balanced approach to living in another country. The flip side to 300 days of sunshine and 40 degree + temperatures for me are too numerous to mention in one simple swipe but I can guarantee there are plenty of them regardless of which country you choose to relocate to. I've lived in both Italy and now France so I think it would be fair to say I have a reasonable understanding of how challenging transferring one's life can be.

My intention with this blog is to detail some of the experiences I have found really challenging, keep it light hearted, make it interesting & varied, share things about what makes French life attractive and basically detail the Flip Side of living abroad. Plus I'll be aiming to capture some slightly off the wall pictures to spice it along.

Today, it's fathers day, we have 30 knots of wind, slightly cloudy and it's about 27 degrees. Not ideal if your a sun worshipper however, as a keen kitesurfer that's pretty AOK for me. By comparison to living in Northampton; Montpellier is based 8 clicks from the Mediterranean, so on the flip side I could argue that this location is far more suited to my passion for water sports.