About Provence

Written by admin on May 30, 2009 – 11:57 am -

Each year, emails flow into the Bonjour Paris mailbox with questions from people thinking of moving to Provence and setting up permanent housekeeping there. Even with the dollar-euro fluctuations, life can cost less in the French countryside, especially if you’re into food and wine. For people who are retiring (and can get medical insurance), France’s quality of life can be lovely. I know because I did it but was far from stopping to exclusively smell the roses.

My husband and I went for it full-tilt and fulfilled the dream so many people share. It was the perfect run-down mas (farmhouse) in the midst of the vines. All it would require was a little work—hah. After two years of more workmen than I could imagine and getting to know all of them in the area, the house was finally a home rather than a construction site. After spending fifteen years commuting between Paris and Provence, selling the house was bittersweet.

There had been so many wonderful events, birthdays, a wedding and memories I’ll always cherish. But for many reasons, most especially the death of my husband Victor, its time had come and gone. I considered trying to keep the house so my grandchildren could spend summers there. But it was a different era and the time had come to move on.

As I drove out of the driveway for the final time, I realized the tiny trees we’d planted when we’d first moved there had quadrupled in height. The fig trees we’d nurtured from slightly larger than twigs were bearing fruit. We’d lived through different weather systems, all too many mistrals and managed to become cat owners.

I don’t (rather didn’t) like cats. But Kitty has become a pivotal part of my life and even has a EU passport. Thank goodness, she has been insinuated her claws and ways into the hearts of others who give her incredible TLC when I’m traveling.

The house and the property were a lot of work and what we spent on upkeep… it’s vulgar to talk about money, but it was a hell of a lot. All I wanted was a staff only to find out we’d be dependent on very part-time help.

My husband was passionate about the garden. I love flowers and immediately planted peonies. Somehow, I always seemed to be somewhere else when they were in full bloom and would have to be content looking at photos of them in their glory.

We had a potager (vegetable garden) that cost a fortune to plant and to maintain. But Victor loved it and I learned to make every recipe that contained zucchini. I would literally stand in the garden and watch it grow. Our guests could hear me cursing. Neighbors knew to lock their doors and close all shutters pretending to be away in the event I came calling with three kilos of what became known as the vegetable from hell.

Naturally, the items I had hoped would grow didn’t. They were planted. But the mole population of the region knew what was good and they weren’t going to bother themselves with the zucchini that would explode a minimum of six inches if I turned my back. These devious animals aren’t stupid and were fully aware flowers are tasty. I thought about buying a shotgun or maybe dynamite, but I don’t think the neighbors would have liked that—or liked the idea that I’d drive the critters into their gardens.

Unless you’re committed to living in the country and becoming a part of the community, Americans shouldn’t strike out and buy property just because they’ve read one of Peter Mayle’s books. Or, our neighbors’ book, We’ve Always Had Paris and Provence by Patricia and Walter Wells.

It’s one thing for people who live in the EU and the UK to have second homes in Provence that they can reach easily on weekends or for a vacation. It’s quite something else when Americans take the plunge and opt to take up permanent residence on the other side of the Atlantic. Even if you shuttle between the two continents, you can’t help but lose contact with family members, old friends and professional colleagues unless you don’t mind running a hotel. And even then…

Before taking the plunge, rent houses in different parts of France where there are huge differentials in costs of buying your dream house. Let the owners do the work as well as absorb the cost of the upkeep. In addition, you become familiar with different regions of the country and where you’d be the most comfortable. Some parts of France are extremely remote and don’t open their arms to newcomers unless your French is flawless.

Other areas of the country are filled with expats, which may be precisely why you opt to move there. It’s easier to acclimate if you already have a nucleus of acquaintances. But try not to fall in the same rut that some do by not even making an effort to learn anything other than the most rudimentary French and residing in colonies.

It’s never too late to learn a language even if your accent is terrible and you use incorrect tenses. The secret is to take lessons, studying, listening to language tapes or jumping in and speaking even if you sound foolish. Children have no shame when speaking a new language and adults should adopt the same attitude.

The cost of real estate in France with the exception of Paris has taken an approximate 10% dip according to Karen Tait, the editor of French Property News.

Buying into a “fractional ownership” of a property tempts some people. There are certainly advantages. But don’t consider buying into one without legal counsel. The developer is the main person who comes out ahead financially. Remember, whatever it’s called, it’s still a time-share.

Consult a lawyer who knows the laws and tax regulations of France and your home country. It’s money well spent since the Napoleonic Code is like none other unless you’re from Louisiana.

There are a lot of pitfalls that can be avoided by not relying on the local real estate agent and his or her chosen notaire who will be responsible for recording the purchase and sale of the house or apartment. If only we had taken this advice and sought out expert advice. But we were too busy smelling the lavender and contemplating the sunsets, which was the point after all.


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Health Care for All

Written by admin on March 21, 2009 – 12:23 pm -

One of President Barack Obama’s goals is to make health insurance affordable and accessible to all Americans by utilizing the current healthcare system. This would include using existing providers and insurance plans.

As an American, this would be a dream. Not everyone can afford the wildly expensive health insurance policies, many of which have so many deductibles that people may find their insurance isn’t worth much except in the event of a catastrophic illness.

Some states in the U.S. forbid insurers to decline patients because of pre-existing conditions. In other states, it’s the insurer who makes the call and can do as they like and do.

In addition, monthly premiums might run as much as your housing costs. It’s not a pretty picture and, as a result, too many Americans go without medical insurance.

Being a French resident has increased my awareness (as well as the funds in my bank account) that medicine in France is a whole lot cheaper than in the U.S. A consultation with an internist costs 22 euros. And French healthcare is exceptional.

Because of government controls, prescription medications cost a fraction of what they do in the States. I was just able to buy a six-month supply of a pill I take for the cost of one month’s supply of the same pill purchased in the U.S. My cost for a month’s worth of pills was two dollars less than my co-pay. 

Having said that, if you need an aspirin in France, its much more expensive than in the US. Expatriates, once back in America, stock up on enormous bottles of vitamins, aspirin and other over-the-counter drugs. There’s current legislation pending that will enable French residents to buy non-prescription drugs for a reasonable price at certain grocery stores and parapharmacies.

Being an expat of a certain age, I don’t understand why Medicare doesn’t cover people who don’t live in the U.S. Some of us view it as discrimination and can’t believe it’s so difficult to do the mathematic calculations between what a procedure costs in Nebraska and what it would cost overseas. In spite of ongoing lobbying, American citizens who choose to live outside of the U.S. are under the financial gun. We’re hoping this will change sooner rather than later.

As things stand now, the same doctor’s visit and other medically related procedures cost very little in the E.U. (and even less in countries that are developing medical tourism, such as Singapore and India).

A few U.S. insurance companies are sending patients overseas for complicated surgical procedures to save on costs. Dr. Sanjay Gupta recently did an in-depth report on CNN, explaining this may become increasingly prevalent. The hospital he toured in India was nothing less than state of the art and many of the physicians had been trained in the U.S. 

The differential cost in medical care personally struck home recently when I had a houseguest from the U.S. His vacation was spent in misery, since he developed numerous symptoms from some mysterious illness. Don’t get the wrong idea – I usually don’t aim to kill people who stay with me. But on his second day in Paris, he awakened with the rash from hell. His body was covered with hives and it wasn’t a pretty sight, not to mention he was in excruciating pain from the itching.

Off I went to my local pharmacy to explain the situation, and returned with a box of antihistamines and some body lotion. The pharmacist couldn’t have been nicer or more accommodating. Contrasted with the U.S., there’s a drug store on nearly every Paris block and they sell almost nothing but medications. In France, you may be able to buy a toothbrush in a pharmacy, but forget milk and other sundries—la pharmacie is not CVS.

When my guest wasn’t better the next day and had developed additional symptoms, we headed to the pharmacy (which can’t be more than 500 square-feet in size). Two of the pharmacists held a conference and decided he should go to the doctor. 

One phoned a near-by one and made an appointment for him to be seen immediately. We were told to rush to the office since it was a Saturday and the office was only open until noon. So we wouldn’t lose time getting lost, one of the pharmacists drew a map to show us the most direct route.

My guest, now the patient, was seen within minutes of arriving in the doctor’s office. None of this “sit and wait business” I’ve become accustomed to in the U.S., in spite of having a walk-in appointment.

If someone becomes sick in France and can’t make it to the doctor, he or she can call SOS Médecins — a network of 1000 doctors who make house calls 24 hours a day. When you speak with the dispatcher, explain you’d prefer a doctor who speaks English and describe your symptoms. The price varies depending on the hour you call. But the group guarantees a physician will be there within an hour. And it’s usually sooner. They can come to your house and even give shots at your home.

Many people say that all of the perks of the French medical system can’t last, as the French social security system (sécurité sociale) is under severe financial strain due to an aging population, which has contributed to a huge increase in spending on healthcare, pensions and unemployment benefits in recent years. As of February 2009, France’s health spending alone is around 10 percent of its GDP. Then again, America’s is over 14 percent—and I’m not always sure we get the best care for the high prices.

You can’t help but wonder if there will ever be parity when it comes to medical care and goods and services. For right now, I have US insurance, and I also tap into the French healthcare system when needed. Fortunately for me, I have the best of both worlds.


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