Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Dress Codes

This is a dueling blog. Donna-Lane's version can be found at: http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.fr/2017/05/preplanning.html.

Years ago, I read the popular book, Dress For Success, by John Molloy. I see he now has a companion book for women, as well as a blog - http://www.thedressforsuccesscolumn.com/.

I don't read any of them. Don't need to. I'm pretty much out of that corpo-rat race, except when I speak at or attend a conference. For such occasions I still keep a suit in Geneva, another in Argèles sur Mer, a blazer and slacks at each, a couple of dress shirts, and a few ties, most of which have some sentimental value. The biggest decision I have to make for such events is whether to trim my hair ... a little ... so as to not be mistaken for homeless. (I prefer Bohemian.)

The one piece of advice I remember from Molloy's book was to not wear a green suit, so I never have.

Green pants, yes, on the golf course. Green shirts, too, with Masters logos. Though not at the same time. I'd look like the spokescartoon for Green Giant veggies.

Donna-Lane will tell you she plans her wardrobe well in advance. That she doesn't get out of bed without knowing what she's going to wear - including underwear and earrings.

My approach, once I'm out of bed, is to grab some clothes to throw on the couch just before I take my shower. That's about as advance planning as I get. Sometimes I wait until after the shower to choose.

My decision tree starts with ... is it warm enough for a tee-shirt? If so, what tee-shirt is on the top of the stack? Is it big enough to hide my belly? If not, go to the 2nd shirt in the stack. If it's too cool for a tee, segue to the golf shirts or something warmer. If it's really warm, shorts instead of jeans and sandals instead of sneakers. As a bonus, I can wear the same tee-shirt to bed that night. Or nothing.

I have started to build a small collection of French language tee-shirts so I'm less anglo when walking around France and Switzerland. But I'm never giving up the now-threadbare WHWK "The Hawk" radio station shirt I've had since the 80s.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Kool Aid and Bubbles

Years ago I read an article that talked about the "circles" people lived in -- the circle of the immediate family, the circle of co-workers, the circle of social friends, and so forth -- and how these circles intersected where there were common interests.

It doesn't seem that people's circles intersect much anymore.

With the increasing incivility brought about by political differences, the widening inequality gap, religious wars, and other polarizing influences, most people now live in isolated bubbles, echo chambers, talking only with those with whom they agree, drinking the ideological kool-aid and not bothering to listen to anyone with a contrary viewpoint.

Inside the bubbles, the pontifications of anonymous bloggers or blowhard pundits are eagerly embraced, even though they may not offer a shred of hard evidence or attribution to a source willing to be named.

Democrats and other liberals are so desperate to understand the astonishing collapse of Clinton, for example, they are willing to embrace and cling to the phantasm that Putin must have done it. Surely there can be no other explanation, and no tenuous alleged link to alleged link to Russians shall be discounted. If it wasn't the Russians, they'd have to face the reality that Hillary was a terrible candidate who ran a pathetic "it's my turn" campaign.

Every day as there is a new outrage from the White House, they sign petitions, and boycott, and march. And get ever more frustrated to the point of spontaneous combustion.

In the other bubble, the Trumpsters seem willing to ignore the vileness, the obvious ignorance and incoherence, and the unsubtle schema to further enrich the wealthy, the Donald first among them, by manipulating the government to their own ends.

For those of us who occasionally attempt to referee by playing devil's advocate, requesting hard facts and credible sources, we are readily assumed to favor the other bubble. When in fact we favor neither.

Having been involved in political campaigns and having recently met with several people in office and their minions, I have no illusions. There are no civil servants, at least not among elected officials, who are interested one whit in the lives of regular people. They are all out to "win," ie get re-elected time and again, and that requires sucking up to those who fund their campaigns. They "win" by destroying the opposition, and oftentimes the opposition blithely provides the ammunition for their own demise.

I have zero faith in Crooked Trump or Crooked McConnell or Crooked Ryan. Nor in Crooked Hillary, Crooked Schumer, or Crooked Pelosi. Or for that matter, in Crooked Macron or Crooked May or Crooked Merkel.

Yeah, I / we have taken on the government in selective battles. Key word, selective. I only have so much energy. I prefer to focus it where I think it can do the most good for those I care about. Not going to waste time on rants about things I have little or no power to change. That approach eats at the soul.

Pardon me, though, if I attempt to burst your bubble from time to time. Il n'est pire sourde que celui qui ne vent pas entendre.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Yes, With My Eyes Closed

I can tell which city I am in with my eyes closed. Not from the aromas (because my sniffer doesn't work so well). Not from the sounds (because my hearing ain't too good). I can tell from the water pressure in the shower.

Just stepped out of what I would rate Shower of the Year - Boston. L has one of those adjustable shower heads, and the pulse setting provides an amazing massage. Could have stayed in there until my toes wrinkled. Especially after two weeks on a near dead run from France to Washington DC to Boston to Orlando to Boston ... and back to France tonight.  (You might check out my three blogs, Madame Nelson Goes to Washington, about D-L's testimony before Congress on tax reform - http://lovinglifeineurope.blogspot.com/2017/04/madame-nelson-goes-to-washington-i.html.)

The water pressure in the very upscale hotel in Orlando was on the disappointing side. And no option for adjustment. Did the job, just. And helped steam the wrinkles out of my dress shirts.

The previous best pressure, at least in our world, is in Geneva. J's shower is a torrent, so make sure the sliding glass doors, which meet at the corner, are snugly closed, or you're mopping the floor after. And don't forget to squeegee the glass when you're done.

The pressure in our apartment in Collonge-Bellerive is about as strong. Even better, there's a sauna lamp to heat up the bathroom so when you step out you're not immediately chilled.

In our Argèles sur Mer flat, and in D-L's "Nest" studio, the water pressure varies from barely adequate to trickle, the latter when 100,000 vacationers invade the village in summer. The shower is on the cramped side, requiring me to turn the shower head to soap up then turn it back to rinse. The best feature in ASM is our wall-mounted towel warmer. I love the feeling of putting on a warm terry-cloth robe, then burying my face in a soft, oversized towel that's been toasting for an hour.

Weak water is about the only drawback to living in Argèles, so we can deal with it. Everything else about the village is wonderful. (Okay, not the cell phone reception, but that's another blog sometime.)

Friday, April 28, 2017

Madame Nelson Goes to Washington - III

We got a brief glimpse of how Washington works (or doesn't) this week when Donna-Lane testified before a Congressional hearing, met with Congressmen or their legislative aides beforehand, and participated in a press conference after.

Here's a link to the hearing as posted on the Isaac Brock Society website. Donna-Lane's video testimony begins at the 27:45 mark: http://isaacbrocksociety.ca/2017/04/27/reviewing-the-unintended-consequences-of-the-foreign-account-tax-compliance-act-video-and-summary-of-hearing/

Here's a link to the post-hearing press conference. Donna-Lane's Q&A starts around the 6-minute mark (the announcers call her a "spitfire": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZoLSfyyjvI

The formal hearing itself could have been purely "political theatre" in that the witnesses' testimonies were already provided to the committee in advance. The real news came from the question-and-answer exchange, particularly for the manner in which the flustered designated Democrat, Elise Bean, first tried to deflect pointed questions with evasive responses (including the suggestion that she'd perjured herself because one of her statements of "fact" was contradicted by attorney Jim Bopp) and then blurted out some things she may regret having said on the public record -- that ALL Americans, including those living in the States, should be subjected to "extreme vetting" reports of their personal financial information. Though the Democrats have long been defenders of personal liberty and privacy rights, Ms Bean's recommendation to triple-down on FATCA by extending it to everyone with any connection to the US (inside and outside the borders) was right out of the FBI-CIA-NSA playbook of warrantless search.
The Committee room, prior to the hearing
Somewhat of a surprise was how few of the committee members attended the hearing -- two Republicans, including the chair, and three Democrats. There were perhaps a dozen aides either seated behind their Congressperson or standing in the wings.

My read is that it is the aides who truly drive much of the agenda in Washington. In our individual meetings in the offices of Representatives on the committee, most of the meetings were with aides, rather than the Congressman himself. Of the two elected officials we met, one seemed rather disinterested at the beginning of the meeting, then distracted by an issue with his car. The other Representative was much more engaging and asked some probing questions to learn more about the issue.

In the meetings with aides, two of them seemed to be well prepared. They understood the issues around FATCA, and one had read the witness testimonies already posted online. There were some discussions of requesting hard information from the IRS about the costs of FATCA implementation against the revenue generated (to hopefully counter some of the wildly inflated revenue claims that FATCA-natics have been floating). We walked away thinking this might be more than constituent-courtesy lip service.

A couple of the aides, frankly, were not up to speed and did not inspire confidence. Nuff said.

The aide for committee chair Rep. Meadows, Graham Haile, seemed very sharp and a key factor in getting the FATCA Repeal legislation into the Congressional docket. I could see him holding elected office someday.

Most of the Representatives' office suites seemed cramped. In addition to the Congressman's office, there were usually several staffers in adjacent offices and cubicles. And our group of 10 filled every available chair, with some of us standing. The walls and shelves were stuffed, too, with memorabilia reflecting the district represented and books reflecting the Congressman's political philosophy. And most offices had some common decor that seemed out of an official Capitol Hill catalog, like a set of emblems for the five military services.

We ate in the same dining room as the politicians and their staffs, but had no opportunity to accost the Representatives in the rest room as they have their own personal bathrooms in their office.

I would suspect that many full-time lobbyists must be in very good shape because we got our exercise over the two days, walking back and forth between the Rayburn, Longworth, and Cannon House office buildings, which are set on a slope. A lot of walking in the corridors, too, as these are large buildings (all the government buildings in Washington seem large - a lot of people working to sustain their bureaucracies). We even did some extra walking for the 4-5 times our group leaders got confused which direction to go to the next meeting.

After our visit to the legislative sausage factory, we caught our breath at a hole-in-the-wall German restaurant, serenaded by live accordion music. The long, wearying, hopeful day was over. But based on what we learned, it seems the battle is just beginning.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Madame Nelson Goes to Washington - II

Proud, proud, proud of my wife and best friend, Donna-Lane Nelson, for her stellar performance Tuesday and Wednesday on Capitol Hill. Despite no longer being American, she helped carry the fight to Congress on behalf of 9 million US citizens living overseas, as well as Accidental Americans, whose lives have been devastated by an Obama Administration 2010 law that has made it nearly impossible to have basic banking services in the countries where they live.

At our own expense (and we are not wealthy), we flew from Europe to the States to participate in several meetings with Congressmen and their legislative aides (the people who really drive the agenda in Washington) and to testify before a House committee reviewing the "unintended consequences" of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or FATCA. The office meetings have their own fascinating nuance, which I will try to relate in the next post.

In my previous blog, I provided links to D-L's video testimony during the committee hearing, her written testimony, and the testimony of the other witnesses. (http://lovinglifeineurope.blogspot.com/2017/04/madame-nelson-goes-to-washington-i.html)

The shock of the committee hearing was not that the Democrat Representatives on the Committee were attempting to salvage core elements of FATCA, but that they opted to attack Donna-Lane and their fellow US citizens (including Danny Kuettel, who had served in the US Army) who are suffering irreparable harm from this law:

1. The designated Democrat "expert" witness, Elise Bean, essentially called Donna-Lane a liar, suggesting that the FATCA law was not a valid reason for D-L's citizenship renunciation.

2. Ms Bean was dismissive of those former Americans who have renounced their citizenship (about 6,000 last year alone), comparing their outmigration with the hundreds of thousands of migrants coming into the States. Go ahead and leave; there are plenty more to "replace" you.

2. Ms Bean tried to get away with the falsehood that FATCA reporting by overseas banks was no different than US banks providing the IRS with a 1099 form. Under questioning from the committee chair, Rep. Meadows, she "amended" her deceit with the disingenuous comment, "1099 is a form, and the FATCA report is a form." Jim Bopp, the attorney for a lawsuit against FATCA, pointed out that in addition to the taxable interest earned, which is the only item reported on a 1099, the FATCA reporting by overseas banks adds highest balance, deposits and withdrawals, and other data -- information which has nothing to do with taxable income and would require a court subpoena to obtain in the US -- a clear violation of the US Constitution against invasion of citizens' privacy.

3. Then, during questioning, Ms. Bean put on her Police State hat and said she would like to see the more extensive and intrusive FATCA information reported ... on all US citizens by all banks in the United States! Without a warrant! I gasped involuntarily when she threw this zinger out.

Through the week's meetings with mostly Republicans, Donna-Lane (a lifelong Democrat who has always been very active politically) had refrained from commenting on non-FATCA issues with which she strongly disagrees with their views and votes. (I teased that she had a hidden "hold your tongue" button that she kept pushing when her blood pressure would rise.) 

She/we were in Washington for one purpose -- to help get FATCA repealed on behalf of all those being wronged by it. It would be counter-productive to engage in arguments on other topics which might undermine the FATCA effort.

One Republican Congressman (whom we won't name to protect his reputation), hugged Donna-Lane and called her his "favorite Democrat."

However, during an unexpected recess in the committee hearing so the Representatives could respond to a roll call vote, Donna-Lane confronted Ms Bean and let the so-called FATCA 'architect' know exactly what she thought of her and her law. "You don't know what you're talking about. You should live overseas for a year. And you are responsible for ruining thousands of lives." Later, during a press conference, in response to a reporter's question, D-L said she would like to slap her, which probably wouldn't have been suitable for the decorum of the committee room.

I don't know if Donna-Lane's comments had an unsettling effect on Ms Bean in the questioning when the hearing resumed, or if it was Rep Meadows' holding her feet to the fire to answer the questions he asked, or if she was merely unprepared that her veracity might be challenged. I was seated in the row immediately behind Ms Bean (D-L was now observing from the back of the room, no doubt still seething), and the Democrats' hired-gun witness was clearly out of ammunition. She was extremely evasive in her answers, or offered irrelevant non sequiturs which only served to demonstrate lack of compassion. In short, she was trying to defend a bad law which she had written and which had been very badly implemented.

After the committee hearing adjourned, as people stood around chatting in small groups, I engaged with a representative of American Citizens Abroad (ACA), which is pushing the Democrats' faux FATCA fix of the so-called Same Country Exception (SCE). 

SCE is no solution, as it would leave in place the core unConstitutional aspects of FATCA. Moreover, the overseas banks who have chosen to purge themselves of American accounts are highly unlikely to change course and accept some American accounts (bona fide residents) and not others -- with a Damocles sword penalty of 30% poised over them, a few expat accounts are certainly not worth the bother.

Ms. Bean was standing with the ACA rep, and surprisingly, when I said the real problem was citizen-based taxation (CBT) ... or as I prefer, taxation-based citizenship ... and that we need to abandon CBT and adopt RBT -- Residency-Based Taxation -- which is the way every other civilized country in the world administers taxes, SHE AGREED! That's right, Ms Bean, oppressor of expats, said she is for RBT instead of CBT. Now, she may recant later, or say I misheard her, but then again maybe she did absorb some of the pain she and her compadres have inflicted on innocents.

I won't get into the obvious errors of fact from the Democrat chair, such as his statement that most other countries practice CBT (sorry, sir, Eritrea is the only other country to tax its citizens on their worldwide income), or his suggestion that there are plenty of banks around the world who will accept American accounts (plenty of data otherwise). Or the bizarre linkage of FATCA which implied that the IRS needs Americans' overseas bank info because there are terrorist, sex trafficking, and drug cartel financiers hiding among our group.

It was an exhausting but exhilarating three days. Three months ago, when we thought this hearing was supposed to take place, Donna-Lane could not have done this. She was extremely fatigued from what we finally learned was an overactive though tiny thyroid. She's doing much better now, thanks. It was only a year ago that she was coming out of the final chemo and radiation treatments of her second successful battle with breast cancer.

Knowing her, even if she was feeling underwonderful, she would have made the trip. She would not have missed the opportunity to fight for a just cause. She has always been someone who does whatever she can to help others. Because someone needs to do it.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Madame Nelson Goes to Washington -I

The normally neutral Swiss invaded Washington this week, occupying Capitol Hill on behalf of 9 million Americans who live overseas.

D-L Nelson and I, together with Daniel Kuettel, his wife, daughter, and young son, all Swiss citizens or residents, flew to Washington DC at our own expense to urge Congress to repeal the draconian FATCA law (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act). We were joined by US citizens who live in Albania, the Czech Republic, and Albania, together with leaders of Republicans Overseas (one of whom left Communist China to become American) to lobby Congressmen and their legislative staffs prior to an official hearing Wednesday.
Here's the essence of FATCA:
1. The Democratic Obama Congress snuck the FATCA legislation into the HIRE Act in 2010.
2. The legislation requires overseas banks to report the accounts of all Americans to the IRS.
3. If the banks miss reporting any American accounts, the IRS will impose severe penalties on the foreign banks, possibly putting them out of business.
4. The easiest option for the banks is to close the accounts of Americans. No Americans, no IRS penalties.
5. Many Americans, therefore, cannot have even basic savings and checking accounts, no debit card, no online banking, no credit card, no car loan, no home mortgage, no investments. It's rather difficult to live your daily life without a bank account, eh?

FATCA is unconstitutional (invasion of privacy, illegal search and seizure) as well. 

You can read more about FATCA on the Republicans Overseas website: https://republicansoverseas.com/.

Donna-Lane had to give up their US citizenship in order to keep her bank accounts. She renounced in 2011, and it was a wrenching decision, something she equates with the death of her parents. Last year, nearly 6,000 people gave up their American citizenship, and the numbers are growing each year.

She, Danny, and the other expats are also part of a lawsuit against the Treasury Department and the IRS which has now been going on a couple of years and may end up in the Supreme Court.

When she/we started this battle, many folks, including expats, said why bother, it's a hopeless, Quixiotic quest. You'll never succeed against the power of the IRS and the US government. Our response: someone has to try to right this wrong.

Today we had meetings in five Congressional offices - key Congressmen who are on the committee which will hear testimony on FATCA repeal tomorrow. There is proposed legislation in both the House and Senate to repeal FATCA.

Who would have ever thought we'd get this far? Who would have thought that D-L would become the leading female crusader on behalf of 9 million Americans (more people than live in the whole of Switzerland and more than live in 37 of the US states) to strike down a law that has cost banks billions of dollars in paperwork just to try to root out damn Yankees?

At the hearing tomorrow, they will play a video of Donna-Lane's testimony. Since you've read this far, here's a link: https://www.dropbox.com/s/px66c6pvr8yejpj/Donna-Lane_NELSON_FATCA_FINAL.mp4?dl=0

And her written testimony: http://republicansoverseas.com/wp-content/uploads/Donna-Lane-Nelson-Testimony.pdf

And testimonies of her fellow plaintiffs: https://republicansoverseas.com/ro-publishes-testimonies-fatca-hearings/

The Congressional hearing will be live-streamed beginning at 2 pm Eastern time Wednesday. You can connect to it here on the IRSMedic youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9ZqWYUiFOw.

The battle is far from over, but we are making tremendous progress and victory is in sight!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Hair Architect

I went to see my hair engineer today - Sam. Samantha, actually.

For the past few months she's been working on adding a bit of curl to my hair, which all my life has been as fine and straight as can be. (By the way, at age 65 ... 66 tomorrow, I'm thrilled to have a full head of hair; take that, Lou.)

I curled it just for fun to begin with, but turns out I like it. So does D-L, which is even more important.

I explained to Sam that we were going to Washington this week, where Donna-Lane is going to testify before the U.S. Congress on the repeal of FATCA (https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertwood/2017/02/06/dear-president-trump-please-repeal-fatca/#18edd7ed31f6). After the hearing, which may be televised on C-Span, there's a press conference.

I expect to be in the background, but you never know. So I don't want to take a chance that, as D-L's husband, my hairstyle might given someone pause about getting rid of this draconian law because they think I look like a hippie (I prefer the term Bohemian.). I told Sam that in American culture, men with long straight hair are often assumed to be homeless (can't afford a haircut?) Ponytail? A high school loner who never wanted to grow up. However, men with long curly hair are more likely to be regarded as, shall we say, trendy.

During the process, Sam applied two different solutions to my hair after it was in curlers. So I asked her the purpose of each. Seems the first breaks down the "disulphide bonds" of the straight hair and the second helps those bonds reform in the new curly shape. Hair architecture, if you will.

It won't stay as tightly curled as you see it above, which is fine too. At least there's some wave to it now. (Full front view in a few days.) And it does not look in any way "corporate," as I did until 3-4 years ago.
About 8-9 years ago - the hand and leg belong to my grandson

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Dueling DNA

This is a dueling blog. Donna-Lane's version is at http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.fr/2017/04/dna.html.

I've been told, over the years, that my family heritage can be traced to U.S. Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, to British royalty, and includes American Indian genes. My brother once did an extensive genealogy study, contacting every known living relative and searching their memories and family archives to assemble our gene tree.

Today there are more sophisticated scientific tools for discovering who you are connected to ... and not just as Facebook friends.

On a bit of a lark, but with some genuine curiosity mixed in, Donna-Lane and I decided to try one of the new DNA analysis services. We ordered the kits online, had them delivered to Switzerland, did the swab the inside of your mouth thing, and shipped our saliva to Houston while we were visiting relatives in the States in March.

The results came through online this week.

No mention of American Indian, but according to Family Tree DNA I may have ancestors from Northern India or thereabouts in Central Asia. Less than 2% though.

The British royalty connection is a much stronger possibility -- 94% of my ancestry is European and fully 88% is tagged as British Isles. Hey, Queen Elisabeth II and I share a birthday. Why not a few chromosomes? (How about a little of the family treasury as well?)

There's a little of Southern Europe in me (6%, they say), around Italy and Greece; explains my passion for pizza and spiedies. And some Eastern Europe, probably Polish or Ukrainian, which was half the town where I grew up. Also a little Finnish and Ashkenazi Jewish.


In the "ancient origins" map, my ancestors were 45% farmer, 42% hunter-gatherer, and 12% Metal Age Invader (my favourite) from 3000 to 1000 BC - "people of the Black Sea region known as the Yamnaya ... changed culture and life on the European continent in a multitude of ways ... domesticated horses, wheeled vehicles, and metal tools."

The analysis also provides a list of personal "matches" - people in their database with whom you share chromosome markers called "centimorgans." Currently I have 1743 matches of varying tenuousness, mostly 2nd, 3rd, 4th and remote cousins. Many have email addresses if I want to contact them, presumably to share gossip about cousin Harriet or Uncle Lester.

The names range from Aasness to Zylla. There are 75 with Adams somewhere in their ancestral surnames, 44 with Bennett (my mother's maiden name). The most common, predictably, are Smith, Jones and Davis.

I also checked Donna-Lane's family surnames, Boudreau (5) and Sargent (12), just to make sure we aren't cousins and therefore should probably not have children together.

The results seem generic enough that they could just be marketing hokum, like horoscopes and fortune cookies. But there's a lot of detail to suggest the connections might be genuine.

I don't plan to reach out to any of my newfound relatives. Though at some point when I have the time I'll probably use my brother's research to fill in the online family tree; that may trigger more matches, either for me or for others in the database.

I know personally nearly all of my immediate family connections and, for the most part, they're pretty wonderful people. If the circle should expand, all the better.

So Cousin Lizzie, when are you planning to have us for dinner at Windsor Castle?

Monday, April 17, 2017

Admiration

I have never had a desire to operate a retail business. The type of enterprise in which you spend money upfront for merchandise at wholesale and then hope people wander by your store and decide to purchase an item or two.

However, I have great admiration for those who choose to do so. Maybe it's a family business they fell into. Maybe they had an idea at one time that they could offer something lots of people would want. Maybe they were just looking for a way to scratch out a living.

The merchants in Argèles sur Mer, at least many of them, work quite hard. They are up early getting ready, especially the boulangeries, charcuteries and fruitiers. The green grocer, for example, has to pull long tables to the sidewalk area, a row for veggies and another for fruits ... then pull them all inside around noon when the village basically shuts down for about three hours ... then go through the whole process again in the late afternoon or evening. In between, they're probably taking inventory, managing the financials, and squeezing in lunch. The woman selling clothes and accessories hangs headless and legless mannequins from hooks on the storefront, rolls out racks of blouses and slacks and skirts and inexpensive jewelry ... repeat, repeat, repeat. The temporary vendors who come in twice a week for the marchés unpack and pack everything into carefully planned vans and towed trailers.

I don't suppose any of these folks makes a great deal of money. If that was their goal, they probably would have left the village for larger, more lucrative environs long ago. The aerospace community around Toulouse. The sparkle of Paris.

Most, not all, are quite friendly. A genuine friendly, not the faux marketing friendly you often find in malls and "high street" shoppes. They learn your name ... and pronounce it in ways you never imagined possible. They remember you like honey with your tea. If you happen to select a bad apple or avocado, they refuse to sell it to you. If the total of your bill is a few pennies over a euro, they'll ignore the centimes. (We often do the same in the other direction, ie keep the change.)

My grandfather operated a small neighborhood grocery store and meat market, about the size of a two-care garage, a block from the house where I grew up. He had one of those wood-carving plaques you get in a tourist trap, probably from a trip to the Adirondack Mountains -- the plaque had a naked fellow wearing a barrel, and read, "The world owes you a living ... but you have to work hard to collect it."

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Dream Dump

I had one of my more vivid dreams last night, probably more toward morning, so I was able to remember some detail, which is not often the case. Usually I am aware I dreamed something during a night but cannot recall anything specific, even the topic.

A teacher once said dreams, or at least certain dreams, constitute a "brain dump."

The dream last night seemed to have at least some connection with real things that have passed through my head recently.

I dreamed I was in San Francisco for a conference. (Why SF? Probably because our friend, R, had posted on FB that she would be up late to watch the SF Giants opening day game (9 hours difference). I remember thinking, just before going to bed, that she might be tired when we meet for coffee this morning.) (Mid-blog update - it was a different R, same name, we were meeting; my confusion.)

For some reason, in my dream, I had signed up for a bus tour which was leaving from the conference. A spouse tour, as it turns out, though I don't think Donna-Lane was involved in the conference.

When I went to register, they told me because I had signed up late I would not be in the same hotel as the others in the group, at least for the first night. (This probably relates to the kerfuffle about the passenger who was dragged off the United / Republic flight - some people on social media commented that passengers who show up late at the airport gate are more likely to be bumped. Though I suspect it's those who pay the lowest ticket fares.)

The nice bus tour people mentioned something else I did not know -- I was the tour group leader. Quite a surprise, as I have never been to the tour's destination, Salt Lake City and other Utah environs, so didn't have a clue how I was supposed to lead. (I cannot think of any reason Utah would pop up in my dream, and I did not mention to the tour people my lack of local knowledge.)

I also learned the bus tour was five days, pretty much the duration of the conference, so exactly how was I going to attend any of the conference? (On whatever the subject was.) (Maybe this was from my reluctance to attend an event in May to which I have been invited but is extremely tight on schedule, so I might have to pass. I have been thinking in terms of five days for this event, including travel.)

I woke up before the tour bus departed, so I'm a bit sorry I didn't get to see Utah. I hear it's beautiful.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Village Life

 
Coming up on four years of living in Europe. It's been lifestyle- and life-changing.

What I like most is the unhurried attitude, the antithesis of the frantic rush of the corporate bubble and consumerist coercion. We are fortunate that we do not have to leap out of bed in the morning and merge into the maddening traffic bound for overpriced coffee driveups and high-rise cubicle farms. Permit me to gloat that, most days, we lounge in bed, reading, until we get hungry for a light breakfast.

When we do finally get dressed, some mornings the biggest challenge is walking about 100 paces down a slight hill to our cheery, samba-dancing green grocer to pick out fresh veggies for lunch, then a few more paces to one of five butchers for the freshest of meat, then a couple of steps to one of four boulangeries for aromatic just-baked bread.

We might stop on the way home at one of three sidewalk cafes, where we're likely to bump into a succession of friends doing the same. It's not uncommon to go out for a "quick" errand and not get back for three hours. The conversations cover everything, and the viewpoints range from radical to reactionary.


Yes, we both work, but mostly on our own schedule. That's a perk of freelance and semi-retirement. Sometimes I'll write deep into the night; that's when I seem to focus best ... the terror of a deadline certainly helps. D-L is more productive in the daylight.

We don't get to the beach nearly often enough. I know; you feel so sorry for us. We actually like it best in the winter when it's fairly deserted except for a dog walker or three. Occasionally early in the morning to watch the sun rise. In the other direction, the Pyrenees rise up to protect our plain, none more majestic than Canigou. Two abandoned watchtowers on the peaks reassure that the Franconistas won't be invading over the border any day soon.

As much as we like the stone buildings that go back a thousand years, the narrow meandering streets, the church bells sounding call to worship, weddings and funerals, the marche vendors hawking produce, sausages and cheap clothes, the summer dances, the non-commercial carnavales, the 25-euro doctor visits, the 5:25 am trash truck beep-beep-beep, and dodging dog doo, what truly makes village life wonderful is the variety of people -- French, of course, British, Irish, Dane, Swede, Moroccan, Spanish, and local Catalan; mostly authentic, non-pretentious, not worried whether their purse is this year's name-brand brag bag, content with a wardrobe that's more functional than fashion.

I don't think I could live in a large city like New York or London or even Paris. Maybe on the fringes ... in a village more like ours. The access to great museums and events might be nice. But I suspect the pace of life even there would lean to hurried and harried.

I doubt I could live in the States again, assuming I could even afford to on Social Security (if it's still there) and a bit of writing revenue. I've gotten used to the shops being closed from Noon to 3:30 or 4:00 and all day Sunday (except for the chain grocery, which is open in the morning). I like that we don't need a car to get to most anyplace we want.

In a way, the village is akin to the place where I grew up. We knew the neighbors. My grandfather had a grocery store down the street. The gathering place for the men and boys was a guy's basement barber shop. We walked to school - elementary, junior high, and high school. We rode our bikes to baseball practice. Anyplace beyond the river was mostly a mystery. That place isn't the same anymore.

Was moving to Europe a coming home for me? Was it a step back in time, both figuratively and literally? Don't know; doesn't much matter.

I'm here to be with the person I love. She's here because she loves this place. It didn't take me long to fall in love with it too. (Just stepping off the train was enough.) And every day we find we love it in new ways.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

Squishing Through French Class

I am now fluent in French.
 
Okay, not quite. One course does not a linguist make.
 
However, I now have confidence that I can become fluent - with steady effort over the coming weeks, months, years.
 
I've been in the French-speaking part of Switzerland and France for about three years, and I have picked up enough French along the way to be semi-functional. For example, I can order in a restaurant and buy things at la boulangerie, la charcuterie, and la fruitière. I won't starve. But the language always seemed to me rather random. I knew snippets but I had little idea how any of them fit together. I did not understand the structure of the language. Verb tenses. Prepositions. Gender. The construction of a sentence (which can sometimes seem backwards).
 
Despite being a writer, I think along logical lines. I like to understand how things work, the history of how it got that way. I realize, even with rules, there are exceptions in French. Hell, the English language is probably far worse for ignoring its own rules. (And when I'm writing, I like that - including options such as the Oxford comma.)
 
If I am to become a Swiss citizen, I must become fluent in one of the four national languages. So Donna-Lane encouraged me to enroll in an intensive two-week course at l'Université de Gèneve. They sent me a timed online test to determine at what level to place me, but I struggled with the questions, so I opted to take the A-1.1 beginner course, seeking a proper foundation.
D-L encouraged me with a drawing. I packed up my pain au chocolat, une banane, une bouteille de l'eau, et un livre des verbes, and flowed into the slow-moving morning rush traffic.

The 12-person class was truly international, befitting Gèneve as a United Nations-focused city. A young woman from Finland who has a 7-month-old baby, a soft-spoken 40-something man also from Finland, a woman in her late 60s from Serbia, a 21-year-old Pakistani woman whose French accent is quite good from the get-go, a quiet young man from New Zealand and a confident giant from Sweden (both of whom stopped showing up the 2nd week - perhaps they transferred to a more advanced course), Islam from Kosovo, Nicholas from Brazil whose mother is Japanese, a 25-year-old woman from Colorado by way of Oregon with tattoos and a lip ring, a 71-year-old gent from Missouri who spends part of each year in Thailand, and the wife of a Russian diplomat. The latter would be an answer to one of the questions I once had to answer for a Secret government clearance - "List all contacts with foreign nationals from Iron Curtain countries." By the way, most of these folks are already bilingual - their native language plus English - and some are trilingual.

The teacher was Swiss by way of Belgium, France, and born in Africa. Her pronunciation was excellent (as was my first semi-private teacher in Argèles sur Mer). One of Dominique's techniques is to assemble the group in a circle, where we would toss a large soft squishy ball (with googly eyes, Karrie). The person to whom the ball was tossed would have to use the next French word or sentence in sequence: un, deux, trois ... As the questions got progressively more difficult through the course, some of us came to regard it as the balle du terreur.
Some of the material I already knew, especially a fair bit of vocabulary. But when I'd get a little smug as some of the others struggled (most with far less exposure to French than me), it would come my turn, and I too would stumble to force my brain and mouth to work in sync.

At the end of the first week, the middle of the course, the eureka! moment struck, and I realized there is indeed a strong order to le français. For the first time, it was starting to make sense. I can do this.

I am fully aware I have a long, long way to go. I will need to be diligent in working at the language daily. Not easy, as so many of our social and work contacts are Anglophones, even in France. I will look into taking additional formal courses, whether in Gèneve or the south of France when we are in Argèles.D-L and I will begin to converse more often in French at home.

So I got the certificate. Step one. More important, I established a foundation for further learning.

À soixante-cinq ans, pas mal.



Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Day I Was Born (I Think)

There apparently ARE some bureaucrats with heart and common sense. At least I discovered one.

This may be one of the way-out weirder problems anyone has ever come across. Certainly in my life.

A couple years ago, I needed an official birth certificate, including an embossed seal. And it had to be dated within three months of the date I needed to use it. The Swiss often have such a requirement. As do the French. And probably many other countries.

It was kind of important. We needed it to get married.

I was born in New York State, where they have outsourced obtaining copies of vital records. So I sent a check to VitalChek. As they would only mail the birth certificate to a US address, I had it sent to Texas, where I was planning to visit my grandkiddos.

The certificate arrived, and I called Donna-Lane from Texas. "Got it. We're good," I told her. But a couple days later, as I was looking at the certificate, I noticed a typo. The birth date was wrong! And wait a minute, there was an asterisk by the date. Down below, the asterisk explained the date had been changed three months after my birth. What?

I started to think that maybe my parents had the record changed for some unknown reason. After all, when my own daughter was born on April 1st, ie April Fool's Day, in a private hospital in South Carolina, I tried to get the hospital personnel to change her official birth date to April 2nd so she wouldn't get teased all her life. (They wouldn't. She does.)

The best source of when I was born would be my mother, right? But I didn't want to upset her (she was 91 at the time) by blurting out my newly discovered problem. So I casually asked her, "When was I born?" Or something innocuous along those lines.

"Saturday, April 21st, 1951, at 10:45 pm," she immediately responded.

The official birth certificate from New York State said April 20.

She proceeded to describe to me how she and my Dad had been shopping at Sears for a tricycle for my brother Larry's birthday, which was four days away, when her water broke around Noon. I was born that night. Her memory was as sharp as ever. Not Friday, April 20, but Saturday, April 21st, because Saturday was the only day they could have shopped for the bike. My Dad worked M-F, the stores weren't generally open in the evenings, and they certainly weren't open on Sundays. I checked the calendar, and April 21st was indeed a Saturday.

I wrote to the NYS Department of Health, requesting an official correction. They sent me back a "sorry" response and attached a photocopy of a document from July 1951 which authorized the change. It was signed by a doctor who was not my mother's ob-gyn. Only problem is the doctor who made the change died in 1959. My mother's gynie died around 2000. Neither of their records are available any longer, and the hospital didn't keep the manual birth records which predated the digital age.

It seemed like I was stuck with an official birth record which had a different date from every other document in my life - Social Security, work records, bank accounts, my Swiss Permis B, US passport ... What kind of difficulties will that pose in the future - for example, when I apply for Swiss citizenship?

By the way, in the meantime, I contacted the clerk's office in the village where I was born. That's where my two previous birth certificates had come from, the most recent in 1978. Fortunately, they had no record of any change of date, so they were able to send me embossed certificates with the correct April 21 birthdate. I ordered 10 of them. Donna-Lane and I got married in Corsier.

I thought, at some point, I might need to take the issue to court to try to get a judge to correct the record back to my April 21 birthdate. But would a judge simply rely on the signature of a doctor who's been dead for nearly 60 years? Would I instead have to try to change all my official documents to April 20? I can imagine the questions that would raise!

Alors, I decided to make one more plea based on my mother's vivid recollection. We wrote out her detailed account of the day I was born, Sears, the tricycle, etc., and had it notarized. We also videotaped her describing this pivotal event in world history. I sent the letter, a cover letter, and a USB with the video to Albany. And, in case they were not allowed to open an unknown USB (for fear of viruses), I posted my mother's video on YouTube and provided them a link.

That was a couple months ago. Yesterday, a package arrived from New York via Texas. I didn't open it last night because I fully expected bad news (sorry, doctor's orders) and I didn't want to spoil a beautiful Valentine's Day with my bride. So I took the package with me to my French class this morning, where I am usually the first one to arrive, so could open it in solitude and rant to the four walls.

Incroyable! Two boxes were checked on the form letter. The first, "Items changed: DATE OF BIRTH," and the second, "We recorrected your birth certificate changing the date of birth back to April 21, 1951." Wow, not at all what I expected. Fantastic!

Of course, to obtain a certified copy of my "re-corrected" birth certificate, I need to send $30 and a copy of a photo ID. Some things about bureaucracy never change.

I need to call my mother.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Growing Old(er) Together

A friend of mine - I consider them a friend though I have never met them except through Facebook exchanges - and his/her partner are going through a very, very difficult time. The partner has health issues which certainly impact their quality of life and, though I don't know details, they may not have much time left together.

Though it may seem a bit awkward, to protect identities I will use h/h/their as shorthand for him/her. Actually, the gender of each or the nature of the partnership is not important. This is a situation that could be about a parent, a child, a spouse, a dear friend, a colleague. This is about them, and us, and maybe you.

Most of us, some more than others, have fears about illness and death, moreso as we grow older. Even when life is frustrating and painful, we kinda want to hang on to it. We usually hope, even expect, the present challenge will pass, and things will get more or less "normal" again (whatever normal is supposed to be).

It was only a year ago that Donna-Lane was going through surgery and chemotherapy and radiotherapy in her second battle with breast cancer. Most days it seems a rather distant memory, as she came through it and seems nearly 100% her active, look-to-the-future self. She's currently working on three different novels, writes blogs, carries on an effervescent social life in the two places we live, and we've been traveling again with at times too much frequency.

I did not experience the pain that she did. At times she was so weak she could not walk the 30 feet to the bathroom without assistance. But "her cancer" often felt very much like "our cancer" because she needed me both for physical and moral support. I did both our "shares" of the cooking and shopping and cleaning and laundry for several months, not because I'm any kind of a saint but simply because those are things she needed me to do so she could focus on regaining her health and strength. (I had not been in her life during her first bout with cancer, and I sometimes expressed that I wished I had, so she obliged me by going through it again.)

Any one who has cancer, I suspect, harbors the persistent fear that it will return. Even those of us who have never had cancer, or a heart problem or other major health issue, do our best to suppress such thoughts. I know D-L wonders almost every time she gets a twitch or feels nauseous, or even when she doesn't, that the cancer will return, maybe somewhere else in her body this time. The fear is both irrational and rational, but it's real to the person with the fear.

From time to time we talk about what might happen should one of us die. We both will, of course. We just don't know when. Or which one of us will go first. We talk about places we'd like our ashes to be scattered. About where we might live when the other is gone. About legal residence, which is more an issue for me than for her. About who and how to contact in the immediate aftermath. About carrying on about causes we care about. About meeting someone else after awhile. About life insurance and inheritances. Practical stuff. Functional discussions but without the emotion.

We don't talk much about the sheer emptiness that such an eventuality will bring to one of us. And to our loved ones. We don't talk about the mental anguish of someone slipping away from you and you can't do a damn thing about it. Worst, you can do precious little for their inner terror.

There were three times during D-L's cancer adventure when I thought I might well lose her. Each time she passed out, and as I frantically did whatever I could think of to try to revive her it flashed through my mind that this might be it. There was no time to dwell on such thoughts; the priority was bringing her back from the brink, getting the professionals to her as quickly as possible, focusing on the expectation that she would pull through again, doing whatever was necessary to help her do so.

One of these times she won't recover. Or it will be me in crisis. I think we both wish when the time comes it could be relatively quick and relatively painless. But then, for the other, it will be relatively frightening. And relatively numbing. For a long time. For forever.

I wish I could give my friend a hug. H/h partner too. There's nothing I can say or do that will change their circumstances. Or the outcome. Or the pain and frustration. It would probably make me feel better more than them. Maybe them a wee, wee bit.

We're already old, though Donna-Lane and I have only been together a few very full years. We want to grow older together. Much older. With as few health issues as possible. Doesn't everyone? Our friends are much too young to be experiencing such agony.

The partner who inspired this post is now with the angels.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Kamikaze Cyclists

I don't drive in city traffic much any more; in fact, in Argèles sur Mer, we hardly ever move the car from the bibliothèque parking lot.

But this week and next I'm in morning rush traffic in Genève, enroute to the uni for language classes.

You don't want to hear my language when it comes to the daredevil motorcyclists (and occasional reckless bicyclist) who weave around and in between the cars and trucks. I'm amazed more of them don't run into side mirrors and cars abruptly changing lanes to try to gain a few feet in the crawl. Or hit a bicyclist, or a pedestrian, while racing along the bike path.

If you leave even a couple of feet between you and the car ahead, especially stopped at a light, you can be sure a cyclist will come up the lane-dividing line and slide in front of you. Or they'll slide over into the oncoming lane, driving the wrong way, and loop around a long line of cars. I don't think I've ever seen a motorcyclist pulled over for traffic violations, not one.

Yesterday, though, there was a police chase of a motorcyclist. The cyclist was attempting to escape into France with about $20 million worth of jewels from a robbery. He happened to wipe out in the village where D-L used to live, only a couple kilometres from where we live now. The gems were scattered everywhere. They think they got them all. But I may just go over to the site and search, Just to make sure.

At least that was one reckless cyclist arrested.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Hatebook, or The End of Civil Discourse?

Post just about anything on social media these days, and you are likely to have returned a slew of vitriol. Doesn't matter what your original topic. Someone in your roster of friends, or in their connections of connections, and usually more than a few people, will use your post as a jumping-off point to spew their hatred for whatever is wrong in their view of the world.

If you post a photo of a meal or a fun time you're having, the chronically disillusioned will regard these as frivolous - how can you enjoy a hearty meal when others have none?; you should give your food to the homeless, or what right do you have to enjoy life when more righteous groups are protesting injustice in the cold rain?

Que Dieu vous aide if you should post anything blatantly political. The literary claws and fangs come out, frequently in the form of quite unimaginative vulgarity. A few seem about to spontaneously combust. Granted, many of the hate posts are from the extreme left or right ... but more and more, these seem to be the only ones remaining on line. The more reasonable, and reasoning, people in the vast middle are retreating because no one is paying any attention to reasoned voices anymore.

For the crime of questioning the source of a report or inviting supporting facts, I have been accused more than once of being a Trump supporter. I am not, as those who read even a few of my posts know. But I guess if I am not also spouting constant hatred for everything Trumpian, I must therefore be worse than a RacistNaziMysogonist. I have also been accused of being a Hillary/Dem flunky; not guilty there either. I think the only reason people don't realise how bad she would be as President is because she lost and didn't get a chance to rule. I am equally disgusted with the ruling politicos, current and past, and their wealthy elite puppet-masters at how they have thoroughly screwed up the world ... largely in the pursuit of greed.

I do what I can to make the world a better place, to improve it one day at a time within my spheres of influence. It starts with being hopeful ... and positive. Don't know about you, but when I seeth with anger I don't accomplish much until I put it behind me.

Some folks I know have chosen to unfriend or block those who troll their feeds. Others have bailed on social media altogether. We have minimised the amount of repetitive, droning TV news we watch. But for the moment, I will remain online, do what I can to contribute in a thoughtful, balanced way to the discourse, and ignore the foul-mouth ranters. Pour le moment.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Really

This is a dueling blog. Donna-Lane's much better blog can be found at: http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.fr/2017/01/rain.html

It has been raining on and off, mostly on, for most of this week.

I am really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really tired of the rain.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Legend of the Needles

Little known is the Legend of the Christmas Pine Needles, or Légende des Aiguilles de Pin de Noël.

(This is a dueling blog: Donna-Lane's view can be found at http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.fr/2017/01/legend-of-needles.html)

Many centuries ago in the Pyrenees Mountains in the south of France, Sancho - son of James II and Esclaramunda of Foix, the daughter of Roger IV of Foix (who persecuted the Cathars) - became King of Majorca, Count of Roussillon and Cerdanya and Lord of Montpellier.

Sancho was of ill health and so preferred to spend time in the mountains where the crisp air and scent of pine needles temporarily rejuvenated his constitution.

One day, as he was walking on a trail near the Correc d'en Benet, which is the headwaters of the river La Massane (or La Macana in Catalan), Sancho and his entourage encountered a Cathar elder. Immediately his soldiers set upon the heretic with the intent to kill him. The elder was not concerned, as he believed in reincarnation, and he thought it might be fun to come back as a bear or wild berry bush. But as the soldiers raised their swords, the elder asked Sancho if he would be interested in a cure for his chronic asthma.

Sancho halted the execution long enough to listen to the old man's remedy.

"You must never burn a Christmas tree," explained the elder. "Exactly one month after Christmas, you must gather up the needles of the tree and cast them into La Macana in the village of Argeles sur Mer. In this way, the tree will be returned to the earth and will grow into a great forest by the sea. The scent of the forest will be carried on the wind and fill your castles along the coast, healing your feeble body."

When the man had appeared to finish, Sancho, insulted at being called feeble, signaled to the soldiers.

"Wait, sir. There is one thing," said the Cathar. "A clause, if you will. You must use only one tree from the forest each year for Christmas. The remainder of the forest must be allowed to flourish."

"Or what?" Sancho asked, but before the answer came the soldiers sliced off the Cathar's head.

The King considered the old man's advice to be a ruse to save his life, but nonetheless, just in case there was some truth to it, on January 25 he followed the instructions and cast the pine needles from the castle Christmas tree into the raging waters of the river. In the spring, thousands of trees sprouted near the beach. So he continued the ritual in succeeding years until the coast was covered with pines.

Now in robust health, Sancho determined to build a fleet of ships to rival the navies of Genoa and Venice. He wanted to do some conquering. So he started to cut down the pine forest. And on the day he went to christen the first ship, he fell face first in the river and died.

He apparently did not believe in the Sancho Clause.

So that is why today in Argeles sur Mer, we celebrate Christmas with only one tree. And on January 25, we gather up the needles and cast them in the river, replenishing the pine forest by the sea.

Oh, by the way, the Cathar elder was reincarnated as a mimosa, the vibrant yellow flower that first heralds the coming spring. You just might see him as you walk in the mountains. 

Donna-Lane casts the pine needles into La Massane