Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Return to Abnormal

Summer is officially over for us. Today we said A la Prochain to a couple of dear friends who were heading home to the States, and tomorrow we'll express A Bientot to another couple who are departing their second home in Argèles sur Mer. They are among about 120 unique individuals from 20 nationalities whom we have had the pleasure of their company over the past few months.

We'll stay on in ASM for a couple more weeks, then hop a high-speed train for a conference in Madrid, before heading home to Geneva for the better part of the winter.

For us, settling into what might be a "normal" routine is decidedly abnormal. It's rare that we've spent an entire month in one place.

There are too many interesting people to visit and places to see. Add in writing-related research, and we're frequently on the move.

Our travel has slowed down some the past year since Sherlock joined our household. For both D-L and I to go somewhere, we need to recruit Sherlock sitters to keep him out of serious trouble for the duration. Taking him with us is not an ideal option - the poor pup gets carsick almost every time.

Staying home more will not be less interesting. We bought an annual MuseePass and plan to visit many of the Swiss museums in the coming year. I will be taking some intensive French courses in order to reach the mandatory levels for applying for Swiss citizenship. And there are always new golf courses to discover.

We'll keep in touch with friends via Facebook and email, of course, and when we next see them in Switzerland, France, or elsewhere, we'll pick up right where we left off. For us, that's what's normal.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

A Thousand Years of History in One Morning

One of the Argèles angels in front of the church tower,
which has been used for storing tax money, holding prisoners,
as a bell tower and watchtower.
Some of our group climbed to the top.

This is a dueling blog: Donna-Lane's version can be found at
Angels, witches, pirates, kings, soldiers, merchants, refugees, the poor and the wealthy … Argèles sur Mer has had it all across the millenium the village has existed.

Today we took Jean-Marc's historical tour of ASM with several English-speaking friends from Denmark, Sweden, the UK, and US. Normally, J-M conducts the tour in French, and he expressed lack of confidence in his English, but he did a superb job.
It was two hours-plus of non-stop fascination with the place we call our second home, so some of the highlights:

> The founder of the Kingdom of Majorca (parts of what is now the south of France and the Balearic Islands), Jacques the Conqueror, split the land between two of his sons, Peter and James, who proceeded to fight each other for the next 72 years.
> A special design on top of some cheminees was designed to ward off witches. This is the only one left in Argèles. (If Catalan beliefs about witches interest you, here's a link -  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catalan_mythology_about_witches)

Jean-Marc in front of the oldest marked house in the village - completed in 1400.
It's just a few doors down the street from us (rue de la Liberte).
> In early ASM, the 13th century, they fortified the village with high stone walls, watchtowers, and  three gates. At one point they were attacked with catapults, so they built their own on top of the west-facing wall. In it's first attempt, the rock went straight up, then straight down, destroying the weapon, part of the wall, and several soldiers. (Sounds like they used the lowest bidder.)
Both our "Warrenpeace"flat and D-L's "Nest" are inside the old walled city.
> After fortifying the village, and thanks to a low-tax policy, Argèles sur Mer quintupled in size from about 300 inhabitants to 1500.

> Revenue derived from three primary sources: 1) a special iron from nearby Canigou mountain, 2) luxury textiles, and 3) wine. Today, there are still vineyards aplenty, but the most money comes from tourism - which did not begin until the end of the 19th century when some wealthy folks established our beautiful sand beach.

> The village church, Eglise Notre-Dame del Prat, a blend of Roman and Gothic styles, is filled with statues and paintings, many of them with their own curious histories, famous individuals, and restorations. The large flat stone inside the entrance door is a pre-restoration altar, placed over the grave, probably of a former priest.
> We learned about building techniques from the Middle Ages through the 19th century; how the original village was probably situated on a nearby mountain, both because the now-beach area was a swamp and to better defend marauding pirates; the monk who showed the French a relatively unknown path through the Pyrenees (enabling them to overpower the Aragon soldiers, who were focused on drinking and dice games); and the original name of the Massane Watchtower, which even most native Catalans no longer remember.

The tour just scratched the surface of this fascinating place, and re-kindled a sense of wonder in this village we love. More research is definitely called for.

Midway through the tour, Matthieu, co-proprietor of L'Hostalet, the best little hotel in this part of France (http://hostalet.fr/?lang=en), invited the group to their breakfast room at the conclusion of the history lesson. We were surprised to be joined by some other friends, who brought delicious pastries of figs, nuts, cheese and honey to go with our coffee.

What a perfect way to end the social season.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Using Social Security to Pay Off Student Loans

By early next year, if the creek don't rise and the US Congress does not mess with Social Security, I expect to have paid off loans for my daughter's university education. She started classes in 1994, so only about 25 years to retire the debt.

I am not the only one. Last year the Consumer Financial Protection Board reported that "people age 60 and older had amassed nearly $67 billion in student loan debt, with the average amount owed being $23,500 — nearly double the average a decade earlier. The bulk of the loans were used to pay for children’s or grandchildren’s education …"

I am, literally, using my monthly social security check to pay off the student loan. (Fortunately, I have other income to live on.)

I don't regret taking the loan. She received an excellent education which has been beneficial to her career.

What irritates me is the games the politicians play with student loans. For example, my interest rate, set by the federal government, according to my loan servicer Navient, is 6.625% -- at a time when the best bank savings rates don't even pay 2%. There have been proposals in Congress to halve the student loan rate, but they go nowhere.

And student loans are about the only debt that cannot be discharged in a bankruptcy. (Congress changed that in 1978.) Not that I would go that route. But there are plenty of people who could use such relief so they don't lose their homes.

I find it curious that in the online information about my loan, Navient never shows what I have paid to date nor the interest paid. They probably know how mad it would make borrowers. I had to ask for the information -- fortunately by email, not some phone call with an interminable hold. Turns out that on an original loan amount of $28,000, I've already paid $48,000 -- and I still have $9,000 to go. So when it's all done, I will have paid more in interest than the original loan.

In one respect, I was lucky. At the point in 1994 when my daughter received her acceptance letter from the university, I had just lost my job (company taken over by a corporate raider and broken into pieces). Because student aid was based in large part on "need," she was awarded multiple scholarships and grants the first year, reducing the amount I paid. Shortly after submitting the aid request, I got a new job (in fact, near where she was going to school).

I appreciate also that she took some summer classes, accelerate her schedule, and graduated a half-year early, saving me about $10,000. She also had her own loans.

In many countries in Europe, university education is free or very low cost. The quality is very high. There is a recognition that an educated, informed populace is good for the economy and especially when choosing leaders and strategic direction. In the US, university education has become a money machine for the schools and the lenders. It's time for a re-think.



Thursday, September 13, 2018

End of the Summer Social Season (a Dueling Blog)

Read Donna-Lane Nelson's dueling blog at:
The beginning of September marks the end of the tourist season in Argèles sur Mer. In July and August, the beaches and streets are packed with, literally, a hundred thousand visitors.

Despite the teeming humanity and the heat, we like the crowds, in part because they spend money that enables the local merchants to remain in business year-round.

And moreso because a small part of those crowds includes friends we only get to see once or twice a year. Friends with vacation homes. Or who rent apartments for a week or a month. Or those passing through who stop to share a cold beverage.

We decided to list and count all the friends with whom we have socialized in recent months, and we're up to 102. Aperos, barbeques, breakfasts, lunches, dinners, coffee/tea with people-watching on the marché, dances, festivals,  a wedding, parades, fireworks, museums … there's been something interesting going on nearly every day, and wonderful people to share it with. The best, though, by far, is simply hanging out together under the mulberry tree at the café behind L'Hostalet, synching arrival and departure schedules, learning what adventures each other have been enjoying, and solving the world's problems over a pression or sangria.

Among those 100-odd people (and some of them are, but in an eclectic way), there are 20 different nationalities - alphabetically, American, Australian, British, Canadian, Catalan, Danish, Egyptian, French, German, Greek, Iraqi, Irish, Lebanese, New Zealander (Zealandian?), Norwegian, Romanian, Scottish, Swedish, Swiss, Syrian.

Their political and social views range from well left to rightish (and we still have quite civil conversations). Among our "philosophers" are PhDs, software engineers, artists, writers.  We have no idea, for the most part, whether they are wealthy or barely getting by. We do know, and empathize, as we are almost all in similar aging trajectory, of the various aches and pains and remedies.

What they all share is an authenticity. A genuineness of spirit. None of them is pretentious. Not one is out to impress the rest of the group-du-jour with the brand names on their clothes or what car (or motorcycle) they drive.

They come to ASM because they enjoy life, and they especially enjoy life in the village. And they enjoy what each of the others adds to their lives.

A la prochain.

As of 15 Sept, now 107 people

Monday, September 10, 2018

Who Wrote It? Another Mysterious "Op-Ed"

While Americans play Agatha Christie, attempting to ascertain which "senior White House official" authored the infamous Op-Ed in the New York Times, we have our own anonymous note mystery to sleuth.

A day after we had decorated our new bland-gray Renault with an array of blue butterfly stickers, we received a scrunched-up slip of paper in the driver's door. The note, reproduced above, is written in English - unusual in itself for a small Catalan French village - and read something like: "Now, that's a true frey(?) Danish Beaver(?) with blue buttaflies(?)"

As you can see, some of the words/letters are a bit difficult to discern. The a's, e's and r's seem to have two different styles. Not sure what a "Danish Beaver" would be, unless they are referring to the shape of the car, and the last word may be "sommerfugl," Danish for butterflies, or literally "summer birds."

Very few of our friends in the village even know about the butterfly stickers yet, and the most obvious couple quickly issued a public statement that, no, they did not write the anonymous note. 

Of course, we cannot assume the anonymous writer is a friend, or even an acquaintance, as they did not specifically address it to us by name.

It could have been someone who disliked the "political statement" expressed by our butterflies. Or an artist offended by the design we chose (the butterflies "flow" from the front of the car to the side, then up across the roof, and down the back on the other side - as if we were passing through a kaleidoscope of butterflies … as their groups are referred to, I discovered). 
We are turning the note over to a graphoanalysist, both to determine the accurate wording and to provide clues to the writer's character and likely heritage. We are also consulting an expert in pen manufacture and ink chromatography to narrow the list of suspected writing instruments. The paper is a cross-hatch notebook, the kind I even use myself, common in France, but we will be checking recent purchases. (The writer is obviously cheap, as they tore off only enough for the two-line message - we will be looking to match the tear-pattern as well.) No forensic stone will be left unturned.

The "Danish Beaver" could indicate a Scandinavian, as could "sommerfugl." 

Then again, it might be someone who is a butterfly aficionado, a person for example who has been to the papillon garden in nearby Elne - http://www.tropique-du-papillon.com/ (notice the subtle way I worked in that advertisement for a local attraction?).

The odd spelling of "buttaflies" might indicate someone from Boston - it's spelled the way they pronounce butter. Perhaps our Massachusetts friends who left town in a hurry this morning?

Unfortunately, the village has not yet installed the promised surveillance cameras, so there's no video of the culprit sticking the note on the car.

We have ruled out Mike Pence, who has an alibi for this past weekend, and Betsy Devos, as she does not spend money on school supplies.

So the search continues … both for the New York Times traitor and the coward who did not even have the courage to identify themselves on the Argèles sur Mer butterfly missive.

We demand that anyone who was in Argèles the past weekend issue a notarized, embossed statement if they did not write the note on the car. Those who do not issue such a statement will be subjected to a lie detector test at the next Saturday marché - in public at La Noisette (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g196598-d5804339-Reviews-La_Noisette-Argeles_sur_Mer_Pyrenees_Orientales_Occitanie.html) so everyone can see when we unmask the culprit.

What kind of society do we live in when people are free to voice their opinion to others through any "publishing medium" they choose?

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Give Me a Choice

"Pepsi Max?" "No, merci."

The American corporate monopoly disease has penetrated even small restaurants in Europe. It's outrageous.

We were in a small, Moroccan-themed restaurant in Perpignan, and I ordered a Coke Zero. The waitress suggested Pepsi Max. They carried only Pepsi products.

To me, Pepsi Max tastes like brown sugar water. There's no zing to it.

What's more irritating is the lack of consumer choice. The restaurant has opted to make a deal with Pepsi to carry their products exclusively, and in return they get a discount, ie extra profit.

I get water.

I first encountered this approach in Dallas, where Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones made a deal to carry only Pepsi products in his football stadium. That's his choice. It's my choice not to attend any games and give any money to JJ - especially the exorbitant ticket prices, which he needs to pay the numerous felons he recruited for the team. (JJ also made a deal with Papa John's pizza, whose owner recently made racist remarks and severely undercut his business.)

I am offended, too, that Terminal D, the international terminal for Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, only carries Pepsi products. Dammit, I want to take a Coke Zero on a long flight across the ocean, not be stuck with watered-down fizz.

If you have a business that serves the public, then give the public a choice. Don't just serve your own greed.

Sometimes I Shop Like a Woman

This is a dueling blog with D-L:

Well, not like some women. Not helter-skelter, checking out everything in the mall in search of another so-called sale.

But compared do Donna-Lane, we definitely reverse roles when it comes to shopping. She tends to get in, get what she wants, and get out, and hopefully no one gets in her way to the checkout.

I do that sometimes when I know just what I want and where to get it - printer ink, for example.

But when it comes to clothes, sports equipment, furniture, books, I love to browse, check out all the possibilities before making a decision. Or no decision.

Recently, we decided to buy a new car. Or rather a new used car. Something with air conditioning and four doors. We thought about looking in Switzerland, but ran out of time before heading down to Argeles sur Mer. D-L had contacted the dealer in France who sold us our current car, a 1999 Peugot 206 which has held up surprisingly well which now has 255,000 km on it. But no aircon, requiring that in the summer heat we make the drive between Geneva and ASM in the middle of the night so as not to overheat Sherlock (and us).

The dealer had something he thought we might like, so we went out to his place to check it out. Aircon, yes. Four doors, yes. But a boring gray, not a colour as we preferred. And above the price ceiling we had set. We drove it on the highway for a few minutes. "Let's take it," D-L said, surprising me.

My style of car shopping is to check out several cars, test drive them, research their reliability on the internet, haggle on price. Might take a few days, maybe a month before I decide to buy. Especially since I am unfamiliar with the European car models.

We pick up the gray Renault Modus next week. And then look for someone to paint a design on it so we can find it in a crowded parking lot.