Archive for April, 2007

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Adventure in France (or, Sometimes It’s Easier To Stay Home)

April 28, 2007

The problem was that we left Menton a month ago with a rental car on a one month contract. It was due back Thursday. As R worried what might happen if I did the trip alone, he came along. Since he came, so did the dog. Road Trip!

We left Wednesday at 2pm. We drove and drove and drove until at 4am I said I needed a nap. A nap is all I got and we set off again at 6am. At 8:45 we stopped in Cannes to view the setting of French Kiss, the Carlton.

Carlton Hotel, Cannes

This was a highlight of the trip and while I had my doubts as we battled the traffic heading into Cannes, I’m glad we did it.

At 11am, we were returning the rental car. At 12:03, we were waiting for the train to Nice. At 13:30, we were on the train to Bordeaux. By this time, I’d had 2 interrupted hours of sleep and R had had none. The rocking of the train allowed only disturbed sleep. Just before I began to doze, I realized that the saying “Nice is nice” isn’t exactly a truism.

Nice

We arrived in Bordeaux at 11pm. Train stations in any big city attract scandalous and nefarious characters; Bordeaux was no exception. We threaded through the beggars and the broken glass in search of a hotel room where we could sleep until it was time to board our 6:30am train to Angouleme. We couldn’t find a hotel room. And here is where the trip went from tedious to pure misery.

When I went off to buy a drink, R and Geena heard what they both agreed were gunshots. What to do? With no other options, we returned to the train station waiting room where we…waited. The room emptied significantly at 1 when the train to Nice boarded, but the benches were all taken. Armchairs were all we had.

R can go about two days without sleep, though he pays for it dearly. I cannot go without sleep at all. My brain will sleep when it needs to, no matter what my body is attempting. When R took Geena for a short walk he returned to find me asleep on the floor with Geena’s padded carrier tucked under my head. I’m really too old to be sleeping on railway station floors – but when I lay down on that floor the only thought that went through my head was “this feels good” and that was only for a fraction of a second.

It’s good that I did sleep, because we’d found an earlier (4:30) train to Angouleme and a quick connection on to our terminal destination. It was important that one of us be awake on the train to Angouleme because that train’s terminal point was Paris – a long way from home. While the new earlier train would leave us sitting in the final station for 2.5 hours until our ride came, it was better than 2.5 hours in scary Bordeaux.

We finished our train adventure at 6:30 without incident and at 9 the guy from the car dealership came to pick us up – we had to wait another hour for them to finish the car’s inspection. But they gave us coffee, glorious coffee and we were satisfied. At the end, they also gave R this shiny, somewhat new Fiat Palio Weekend.

Our Car

The End.

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And The Beat Goes On

April 24, 2007

And on, and on.

Until I met R I can’t remember this ever happening before, but since we’ve been together we haven’t had one single home where we weren’t subjected to OPM (other people’s music.)

Tonight, our neighbor and his friend were jamming on their guitars. Sounds rather inoffensive as OPM goes, right? But they’re electric guitars connected to an amplifier and sometimes accompanied by harmonica or voice through a microphone. They’ve got a fabulous cherry tree in their backyard, which is apparently the perfect venue – and the perfect audience. Two weeks ago it was classic rock, tonight it was nervous (and nerve wracking) jazz. They stopped some time after 22:15. I’d have said something (rude) to them but as previously stated, I can’t speak French. Even if I could, experience tells me it wouldn’t have done any good.

For the last six months we lived on Crete, we were living 100 meters from a hotel. This particular hotel had a nice sized parking lot, was well landscaped, and had two kitchens. In Crete, this means the hotel hosts summer weddings/parties. And Greeks like their music loud, like teenagers – loud enough that you can’t hear. One night it got so bad that even with all the windows closed and the TV on really loud, I couldn’t not hear the bouzouki music. At 11pm, R and I walked over to the hotel to complain. They told us, essentially, “tough.” When you look at their party area and see 400 people and presume 20 euros (at least) a head, you understand why they’d be willing to alienate the neighbors. 8,000 euros is a lot of money. If someone told me they’d give me 8,000 euros to make my neighbors really angry, I’d do it. They did serve us free food, including the only potato salad I’ve ever liked. As my dad says, Free Food is Good.

Before that, in the same village, we spent a year living next to a famous Greek musician. While he played a lot of instruments, his three primary instruments were percussion, piano, and saxophone. He played the saxophone outdoors and it did irritate, but as a smoker his stamina was (fortunately) compromised. Strangely, the most offensive of these was the piano. Those houses were pretty well soundproofed but connected via outdoor patios to one another. Somehow, the piano vibrations carried through the stone and cement. His chosen practice time? Midnight – 5 am. One night he started just as I was laying down. I tried to ignore it, but finally went to knock on his door. He seemed confused by my visit. I explained that the piano was keeping me awake and it was after midnight. “But I’m studying.” That’s all he had to say and all that needed to be said. He wasn’t going to stop just because I couldn’t sleep. Greek noise nuisance laws are very strict. You must absolutely not disturb your neighbors during the afternoon siesta. But midnight? That’s fine.

Before that we lived in an apartment building in North Carolina. The walls were pretty solid but the doors leading to the corridors wouldn’t block a whisper. We did have occasion to speak to neighbors who were being silly at odd times, but the biggest problem for me was the ghost piano. I’d been just barely hearing it for a few weeks. It was so faint I almost thought I’d imagined it, but so pervasive I couldn’t ignore it. Poking my head out the corridor I couldn’t hear it at all. In all, it took me nearly a month to track it to the apartment directly above us, five floors up. Those people wouldn’t answer their door, so I slipped a note under the door which had exactly no effect. It doesn’t end there.

The house before that was a one bedroom tiny place for which we paid a fortune because of its ritzy neighborhood. Sadly, 6 months after we moved in our PhD landlords took a year off and went to Europe. They rented their portion of the house to a family of 4. The 15 year old son was a drummer. Our landlords bought him an electronic drum kit to prevent any problems. But it wasn’t the same. The parents began bugging us to give them a time when their child could practice his real drums every week. When we stalled and stalled, he finally set up the kit in a room next to ours and ‘tested’ the drums at 1am. That’s what he told us when we told him drumming at 1 am was a big NO. “I’m not playing them, I’m testing them!” This didn’t go well, as every drummer has a band and every band has to practice – at the drummer’s house. It was a bad year.

I wonder what it will be the next time. Opera, maybe?

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Language: France vs. Greece

April 23, 2007

This entry is sure to be perceived by some as a complaint, but it isn’t. I considered not writing it, but in the end decided that it is a valid observation. A person thinking about living in France or moving to Greece might need to know.

“I just want you to understand that I wouldn’t normally do this, but I happened to be sitting next to the gentleman you were speaking to and he asked if I spoke English.”

We were trying to find out what was wrong with our internet connection, 27 hours old and already broken. The customer service rep was disapproving, to say the least.

We’ve had a bit of a language challenge. Firstly, R has turned out to know a lot more French than he ever let on, and he thankfully remembers it. But he has a hard time understanding spoken French, probably owing to the fact that he learned French by reading. I, on the other hand, seem to have retained only the ability to say day names and numbers. I can, however, understand a great deal of what is said to me. I’m glad to skip that tedious step where a new language just sounds like an impossibly long, unbroken string of syllables. Even if I don’t know the word, I can understand what was said and look it up later.

The end result of this is that we tag team communicate. R talks, the other person responds, I translate this into English for R, and we start over. Although it’s ridiculous, it works – at least in person. But this telecom conversation was happening over the phone which totally messed with our technique.

The thing is, everyone here insists on speaking French all the time! How spoiled do I sound? Right, and I know we’re in France. And I know that if everyone speaks French to us, we’ll learn quicker. But at that moment, we were just trying to find out what happened to our desperately needed, long awaited, hard earned internet connection. I had struggled along with a very nice customer service guy for several minutes, managing to explain that the problem began at 7pm, and I was able to give him our account details. All in French. But when he started to talk, I didn’t understand what he was saying. This is when he handed off the phone to his English speaking neighbor and I handed the phone over to R.

By comparison, Crete was a cake walk. Well before the end of our two year stay, I spoke only Greek to Greeks. One thing the Cretans we met seemed to ‘get’ was that when speaking to an immigrant who obviously might not understand, it helps to slow down, use small words, and gesture. This is not the case here in France. Even when I have obviously struggled to come up with ‘hello,’ they proceed at full speed and don’t skip any words. They speak to me as if I’d just spoken fluently to them.

In Crete, R handled all of our many, many, many internet and telephone issues. He was able to do this because in Crete, there’s always someone who speaks English. Perhaps it’s because Crete’s economy depends so heavily on tourism (though France is sustained by quite a lot of tourism also.) Perhaps it’s because Greek hasn’t been a lingua Franca. Whatever the reason, there is a vast difference in the willingness to speak English. I don’t think it is a difference in ability. In Menton, we were watching a French quiz show which posed the question, “what percentage of (French) students take English as their primary foreign language?” The answer was 96%. In which industries are these 96% working?

In the long run, this won’t present any problem, as we will speak French. Perhaps these differences account for the hoards of expats on Crete who, despite living there for years, still don’t speak Greek at all.

After giving his disclaimer (perhaps reprimand), the English speaking customer service rep at France telecom explained that there was a problem with the service in a large area which would be fixed around midnight. R thanked him and promised to speak better French by the next time we called.

There are many, many frustrations which come with any move, even if the move doesn’t take you to a new country. Language can be one of them. Still, je ne regrette rien (except perhaps waiting so long to make a move we knew we needed to make).

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From Skilo to Chien, One Dog’s European Journey

April 21, 2007

When we moved from the Eastern side to the Western side of our Cretan village, our 12 year old dog Geena didn’t cope as well as we hoped. She seemed out of sorts for nearly three months. How would she deal with the much larger move from Crete to France?

In addition to her mental health, we were concerned with the travel logistics of moving a dog from Greece to France using ferries, trains, and taxis. We actually considered buying a car only because we’d be traveling with our dog. Greece is not the most hospitable place for dogs and I had serious doubts about whether a taxi would even pick us up with her along. In the end, buying a car just wasn’t going to happen; We would simply have to muscle our way through the trip with our dog in tow, come what may. In the month leading up to the journey, we talked with her about what life in France would be like. She was not particularly impressed. She did, however, consent to trying on a beret in preparation.

Geena’s Preparation For France

There were essentially 7 steps in our journey across Europe with our dog.

First, there was the Crete-Piraeus ferry. Online information led me to believe that for this leg our dog would not be allowed to stay in our cabin, so we were prepared to put her in a kennel for the duration. R bought the tickets and mentioned the dog. The ticket agent told us to ask the concierge as we boarded. The concierge told us to ask the reception. Reception ignored both me and the dog so we headed to our cabin and that’s where Geena stayed for the 9 hour trip.

Step two was getting from Piraeus to Patras to get the next boat. When we traveled to Crete two years ago, we took the bus. The experience was unpleasant then and I wasn’t sure now how they would respond to the dog. I suspected they might want me to put her in the baggage hold – so we were looking to go by taxi. The first taxi driver we saw didn’t bat an eyelash and Geena happily sat beside me for the whole ride. I mentioned that I’d been nervous that no one would take us with the dog and Christos, our taxi driver, replied that he could tell she was well behaved and that made the decision easy.

Step three: Ferry from Greece to Italy. We were traveling by Superfast from Patras to Ancona. The information I’d found online said we’d have to get the most expensive cabin and pay 50 euros extra for Geena to stay with us. Dogs also could be kenneled at no charge. We did the first and it worked pretty well except that the floors were wooden and she slipped as she jumped off the beds. I’d also read that dogs were only to be exercised on deck 10 and must wear a muzzle and be on a lead while on deck. There was another dog onboard who wasn’t on a lead at all and went with his lady friend everywhere. Geena walked on the appropriate deck, on a lead but sans muzzle. She also sat with us outside on the 9th deck; no one seemed bothered.

Step four: Taxi from Ancona port to Ancona rail station. No problem. The journey is just over 1 kilometer and easily walkable, if you aren’t toting a dog, four suitcases, a guitar, two computers and a cripple. We took a taxi.

Step five: Train to France. Here we ran into an issue when the ticket agent told us our dog wouldn’t be allowed on the train. We showed him our dog carrier and he relented. When the train came, I shoved coaxed Geena into her carrier and we boarded. She was so panicked by this that I let her out even before we’d stowed the luggage and she on the seat beside me. No one seemed to care. I don’t think I’ll ever get her into that carrier again.

Geena and Her Doggie Bag

Step six should have been finding a hotel which welcomed pets, but we managed to add an extra step by falling asleep on the train and ending up at the end of the line, Torino. We then took a taxi from Torino to Menton. The taxi driver was very nice and had no problem with the dog- which doesn’t surprise me considering the fare we paid.

Step seven, finding a hotel where Geena would be welcome, presented no problem at all. The first hotel we tried welcomed all three of us and we gladly crawled into our beds and slept.

The last thing we did for this trip was rent a car and drive to the Charente, where Geena is quickly adjusting to a dog’s life in France, though she refuses to wear the beret anymore.

Geena In France

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Moving to Crete: Something to Consider

April 19, 2007

You can’t know everything, and you can’t ask the right questions until you know everything. One of the subjects often discussed but never settled regarding both Greece in general and Crete specifically is animal welfare.

Coming from the U.S.A. or the UK it is difficult to imagine how the general state of animal welfare on Crete will affect your daily life. In our home countries, it is not only illegal but also socially unacceptable (a more powerful tool in many respects) to abuse or neglect an animal. In Greece, it is illegal but socially acceptable.

How will this affect people moving to live in Greece or Crete? I offer two illustrations of the Cretan attitude towards pets.

It had been raining non-stop for two days when my landlord’s sister came over to investigate some leaks. Her eyes zoomed in on the dog’s food dish in the corner and her lip curled in disgust. “You feed your dog inside?!!” I’m not sure if it was a question or a statement. Clearly, she felt that despite the sheets of rain, no sanitary person would allow a dog to eat inside their home.

I feel compelled to point out something for perspective. In Crete, toilet paper cannot be flushed. Used toilet paper is put into a basket. Hello! – raw sewage sitting in your house and then placed into the dumpsters (skips or rollybins for the Brits reading.) If it isn’t dragged or blown out of the dumpster it will be carted off to sit in a landfill and filter into the water table. Now, that‘s unsanitary. Eating food under a roof – not dirty.

Our neighbor’s perception that dogs are inherently dirty or unhygienic is not unusual on Crete – it is the rule rather than the exception. I had a British friend who, by all accounts, had too many dogs. When she fell ill with what turned out to be severe depression, the general consensus in the village was that she’d picked up something from her (inoculated, clean, and parasite-free) dogs. There was some serious conjecture that she might have swallowed a dog hair. Heads shook all around as everyone agreed that it was only a matter of time because she was living with those dogs.

Those two stories illustrate somewhat how you and your pet will be treated when living in Crete. But the problem is much more serious and problematic when one considers how many Cretans treat their own animals. Starving, beating, tethering dogs ON the road or alone in the middle of an olive grove is common. Some hounds are tied to trees with only a goat’s skin thrown to them once a week. Puppies are found in dumpsters regularly. You cannot drive 5 kilometers on the national highway without seeing at least one dead dog or cat. There is no governmental agency which takes care of these bodies so they simply go through the entire cycle of decay in the open. And then there is the regular laying of poison to kill strays (and sadly, well-kept animals unfortunate enough to lick or eat the poisoned food.)

Such treatment is illegal but accepted in Crete, and the reason is two fold. First, most people just don’t consider the ill-treatment of animals to be a moral issue. Second, and more nefarious, there is a real danger of revenge should someone intervene and fail to remain anonymous. Until you’ve lived in a tiny village, you can’t imagine how difficult anonymity can be. One friend rescued two tethered, starving hounds only to find 4 Cretan men on her doorstep the next day with guns demanding their dogs’ return. That they were breaking the law in their neglect of the animals counted for nothing.

Another time, we came upon a dog whose back had been broken when she was hit by a car. The dog’s owner simply let it drag itself around by it’s front legs, resulting in open sores. A neighbor told us that the animal had been injured at least two weeks prior but refused to help because the male owner was very mean and threatening. When we asked if they planned to do anything for this dog, the female owner simply shrugged as if it wasn’t her responsibility. Thankfully, that episode ended well – we asked to take the dog and they gave us permission.

The potential expat who lightly says that even if the neighbor is mean or vengeful, they will do the right thing has never lived in fear that their neighbor, if crossed, may well take revenge. A successful, happy expat in Crete will have to find some way to come to terms with the widespread abuse. And there’s something else.

When calls are made to enforce anti-cruelty laws or to attempt to institute widespread change among the Cretans; they are not just met with blank stares from the Cretans. Fellow expats will often come to their aid, usually saying that you have no right to come to another country and demand that they change to suit you. True, perhaps, if you are demanding that they not play their music so loud at the wedding or that the husbands help with the housekeeping. But would they say the same if they were living in a place where female circumcision was the norm? Maybe they would. Those people suck, and they seem to be compelled to move to Crete and work very hard for the prevention of the prevention of cruelty to animals.

Lastly, as regards this issue, anyone moving to Crete will have to know how they will handle the issue of animal rescue. There are some who have houses full of animals and who spend the greatest majority of their time and money housing strays. Others volunteer at privately run and funded shelters. The most disheartening thing about all this is that there are still thousands of animals who need rescue. Many thousands. A soft-hearted expat looking for a place in the sun who moves to Crete may end up unhappy; devoting themselves completely to the hopeless and thankless task of rescuing what animals they can – and it’s never, ever even close to enough.

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Resuming Where We Left Off 27 Days Ago

April 17, 2007

Still in France. Thankfully back on my own keyboard again. I didn’t miss the internet much while we were offline, but I did play a lot of solitaire.

We arrived in the Charente on Friday evening, 30 March. We were expecting the house to have ADSL connected because that’s what the advertisment said, “ADSL connected to the property.” On arrival we discovered ADSL was NOT connected, but it is possible to have ADSL connected to the property. It’s funny how British English and American English are different in this respect. In this case I use the word ‘funny’ to mean NOT FUNNY AT ALL.

As we were here and all, we figured we’d just struggle through and do what had to be done. First step, connect the phone. In France you need a bank account to get a telephone connection. Of course, you need a utility bill to get a bank account. As the language deficient owner of the property has the electric and water in his name, the phone bill was our only option. Classic.

Revised first step: bank account. A local expat our landlord described as ‘very helpful’ offered this advice – don’t go to Credit Agricole like all the other immigrants, go to the Postal Banque. So we did. They refused us outright as we didn’t have the necessary utility bill. Garr!

Four days of mulling every possible solution left us bereft. Finally, Saturday 7 April, I decided that Mr. Very Helpful might also carry the title ‘Mr. Full of Shit’ and we went to Credit Agricole. “No problem,” said the account manager David, “but I will need you to bring the phone bill to me when it arrives.”

From there it really has been a waiting game. We went to the phone company the same Saturday (in Greece the phone office is open until 1pm M-F – this ‘open on Saturday’ thing is very refreshing.) It took until Thursday to get the phone connection, then we had to go back to sign up for ADSL. That was last Friday and the very sweet lady told us it would take 7 days.

In the absence of our own internet connection, we’ve been making use of the Mediatheques’ public (but not free) computers when possible. Our local Mediatheque is closed on Monday and open only 10am-noon on Tuesdays. We arrived today at 11am, later than we planned because I had to change a flat tire. As we were pulling in the librarian was pulling out, having left a sign on the door which read, ‘the library will be closed today.’

At that moment, only for a moment, I knew our home internet connection was on. By the time we’d gotten home 7 minutes later, I’d forgotten about it until R started yelling his fool head off. Bang, we’re on!

Well, that’s it for now but I will be updating regularly again.

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