Sometimes coping with The French Bureaucracy is a straightforward commercial transaction. I drove up to Montpellier yesterday for a medical exam and interview with the OFII, the national office of immigration and integration, a name that implies some effort will be made to help newcomers adapt to French society. I wouldn’t count on it.
After finding the nearly anonymous Centre de Radiologie Victor Hugo, which in the letter was said to be located at 10 rue Victor Ugo, but the Waze app correctly found at 10 Boulevard Victor Hugo (I suspected as much), I was quickly ushered in, told to remove my shirt and cozy up to the x-ray machine. Zap! Back to waiting room for ten minutes, handed an envelope with my films and shown the door with an assurance that the next address wasn’t very far away.
Waiting room, a little longer this time, until a woman in a white lab coat calls my name and shows me to an office where I’m asked my height and weight, requested to read an eye chart, and told to return to the waiting room. Twenty minutes later a woman in colorful civilian clothes calls my name, shows me to an office, asks for the receipt that shows I paid 250 euros online for this experience, returns my x-rays, and puts a shiny new stamp in my passport authorizing me to be in this country for the next year. Pay to play. Simple if you have it.
By the way, many people, experts even, have said mine were among the most beautiful chest x-rays they’ve ever seen. They may be the best x-rays any president has ever… oh wait.
I was chewing on an immense magret from a steroidal duck and washing it down with Coop wine when an old friend from past visits came in and I immediately launched into my insurance saga.
“This is wrong. I can help you.”
He went to another table, talked with one of the men, and returned with a business card.
“Franck can help you. He says it’s not a problem. Just go to his office Tuesday morning.” I bought him a beer, but I had seen enough to withhold optimism until Tuesday.
So I rented a car for the drive to Tours to visit with John and Mary Priest and family for a lovely weekend of good food, great wine, and better friends. Returned Monday and quickly fell asleep only to dream of losing all my money. Totally wiped out. Everything. No explanations. Just gone. I awoke with the pigeons and checked my bank account which was intact but the news did not significantly lower the level of anxiety.
I went to see Franck. As I was driving the road leaving Maury, a truck coming in the opposite direction flashed his lights at me, the signal that the gendarmes had set up a check station just ahead. Visions of the guillotine danced in my head, but I was allowed to pass. Made it to St. Paul without incident, Franck welcomed me and turned me over to his colleague who would fix me right up, no problem. She echoed his optimism but unfortunately her computer was down and she could not process my request, but no worries, she’ll take copies of my paperwork, and when the computer is fixed this afternoon, she’ll do a quote and call me. Right, I’ve heard that before. I took the long way home. By five o’clock, my fears were confirmed, I turned on yesterday’s Giants’ game and poured a glass of wine.
I called the US Embassy and found out that France has driving reciprocity with only a few states and California isn’t one of them, so they will not exchange my license. I have a year in which to go to driving school and take the test for a new French license. But there was no reason that I couldn’t get insurance in that time. It was up to the companies. There’s no law against it. I called Franck again and his colleague suggested I give her a mailing address so she could send me the quote. She’s eight kilometers away but how long would the post take?
“I’ll come to your office.”
“You will come? OK. I will call the company after lunch—it was almost 10 AM so I guess there wasn’t enough time before lunch—and then you can come. Four o’clock?”
“OK. I’ll be there.” She didn’t ask and I didn’t offer the information that I’d be driving my uninsured car to her office.
The country cousins have come to visit my pigeons but they don’t seem to have much to say. Their voices, limited to a single long whooooo, argue ineffectively with the locals.
Woo, wooooh, wuh. Whooooo
Woo, wooooh, wuh.
I talked to Michel who said maybe I could sell him the car and when the new registration was complete, he could put me on his insurance as a second driver. The French just live for this stuff. There’s a workaround for every bureaucratic obstacle, but I could only see reams of paperwork and months without a car. I told him I would go see Franck.
They were both smiling when I arrived a few minutes before four, but I didn’t expect that to last and, indeed, when she turned to her computer, a shadow passed across her face. She asked me what level of coverage I wanted, then swiveled the monitor to show me the options and rates. This was progress but the numbers were not a reason to smile. I decided to go for the all-risk coverage, the highest number on the board, and while we’re at it let’s throw in the 24-hour roadside assistance. That brought a smile to her face: “It is best.”
Then the smile faded as another potential obstacle loomed. “You have a French bank?”
But I had this one covered. Not only do I have a French bank account, I knew how much was in it and I had the numbers with me.
She put the green official coverage form in her printer but then turned back to her monitor and shook her head. This, I was sure, was the disaster I was still expecting. But she simply removed the green form, printed out two copies of the contract, handed them to me for signatures, printed the form, and smiled. “You can drive.”
Poof. Anxiety gone. I wanted to kiss her. I wanted to kiss Franck. I settled for handshakes and the most profuse expressions of gratitude I could muster in French.
The cooing of doves haunts the present and the memory. Woo, woooh, wuh. Short, long, very short. Somber, wistful sounds, they make together, or alone. They roost in the eaves of the church above my house and the sound carries down to the bedrooms. I hear it early in the morning when I’m not yet ready to start the day, and all afternoon when working in the office. The pigeons hang out at church into the evening but today, they’re strangely silent, or maybe just taking a long lunch like everyone else around here.
I’m being pummeled by the bureaucracy. My car is finally whole so I went to buy insurance. Now, I’ve done this before: when I moved here five years ago, I bought a car, registered it, bought insurance. Not so fast. The first agent told me he could not sell me insurance because I have not owned a car in the last three years and so he cannot check my driving record.
“But I had a car and insurance here four years ago.”
“That is too long. Perhaps you can try the company you used before.”
Woo, wooooh, wuh.
Of course I can, but no they can’t. Not with a California drivers’ license.
“But you insured me four years ago.”
“Yes, but it’s different now.”
“What do I do?”
“You must exchange your license for a European permit. You can try the Mairie in Maury. They may be able to do that for you, if not, the Préfecture in Perpignan.”
I’m at the Mairie in the morning when it opens, with every document I could possibly need. And I nail it. When the paperwork’s done, I ask for an Attestation stating that I have made the application and ask them to telephone the insurance company and ask if that will suffice for temporary coverage. The agent takes my number and says she will confirm after speaking with a colleague.
Well, I didn’t really expect her to call, so I carefully drove to the office this morning hoping for an answer.
She had my name and number on her desk and appeared to be waiting for me. Perhaps I misunderstood. “I will help you now,” she said.
“Good. Can you issue the policy?”
“We will see.”
Terrifying words in this context. She made a call. Uh oh. She made another and shook her head. “The Préfecture may reject the exchange.”
“Why would they do that? At the Mairie, they said it would be fine.”
“I will try another.” This time, I saw a smile as she spoke and when she hung up she said: “D’accord. Pas de problème. I will do the devis.”
She turned to her computer and the shadows returned.
“Non. C’est pas possible.”
“But why. You said it was no problem.”
“Regardez. These are all the companies.” The red type on her monitor screamed at me. “They all say no.”
She turns back to the phone.
“He says California is not compatible. They usually reject California.”
“So what can I do?”
“You can try the American Embassy.”
Someone brought her the number. She waited patiently. “Tapez un, tapez deux. OK”
She waited in the phone tree. She started running bills through the postage meter. She waited. Her colleague brought more bills. These were the lucky drivers who had actually been able to buy insurance. She waited a little longer. “Impossible.” And hung up. She handed back my license, passport, registration, attestation, and, finally, the number of the embassy. “Tuesday,” she said. “It’s almost time for lunch.”
I drove back to Maury and carefully parked in the garage. I tried to call the lawyer I had used for the initial visa. “He will call you back – probably this afternoon.”
I thought of asking the Mayor for help, but it was lunch time.
Sunday morning. I shaved my face, donned a fresh black t-shirt and walked up to the Mairie to witness the climax of this most confounding and portentous election.
Charlie, the mayor of Maury, did a double take, smiled warmly, said “Ah, Ron”, and came to shake my hand. He introduced me to all the other poll workers, who nodded as they recognized “le photographe’, and said of course it would be fine for me to take photos as people voted. I shook hands all around the room and one woman said I had taken a beautiful picture of her father, Adrien. I remembered it, found it on my phone and showed it to her. “He died last year,” she said.
Charlie asked: “What’s going on in America, this Trump?” I gave my best French expression of disgust, a vehement “Beh!” Then said: “C’est pourquoi je suis ici.” “That’s why I’m here.” Everyone laughed and welcomed me back to town.
There are stacks of cards for each of the candidates and I asked if voters had to take all of them into the booth. “No, no, minimum two.” So you present identification, take at least two cards and an envelope into the booth, put one in the envelope, throw the others away, have your name checked off against the roll of eligible voters and your voting card stamped, deposit the card in a clear plexi box as the official calls your name and adds: “à voté”. But I noticed some voters took no cards, apparently intending to deposit an empty envelope in protest against all the candidates.
I told Charlie I’ll return for the results and went home to lunch.
Envelopes are collected into batches of 100 and placed in larger envelopes, then opened, passed to someone else who reads the name aloud, which is then hand-tallied by two other officials. When the envelope is finished the count is read aloud, agreed and recorded. The room is absolutely silent except for the reading of names and results. No groans, no expressions of dismay, no wringing of hands although everyone I had talked to was appalled at the thought of President Le Pen. I had a good chat with Charlie, a test for my French but we made it. He really didn’t think she could be elected but he was certainly aware of the anger and uncertainty here, and everywhere and understands the decline of the traditional party structure and how many fear globalization and, of course, the anti-immigration fear of the “other”. And the alternatives are not terribly attractive. Mélenchon is a demagogue from the left, Fillon, a dinosaur on the right, Macron is pretty but who knows what lurks behind the façade.
Maury gave Le Pen a victory by about 25 votes over Macron, Mélenchon third, Fillon fourth. It surprised me—this area is traditionally solid Socialist—but maybe it shouldn’t have. Like many small villages, Maury is suffering. There are many houses for sale as the older generation dies off, few services for those who remain, and no jobs for the young. People are angry, confused, certain traditional politicians have let them down, but unsure where to turn. But it’s worth noting that about 75% of the Maury electorate voted, about a dozen cast blank ballots. Democracy may be unsettled in France, but people still care enough to participate.
Conventional wisdom says the French vote with their emotions in the first round, their brains in the second. We’ll see. I was watching Charlie during the count and saw him receive a text, smile, and raise a clenched fist. I’m guessing Macron is doing well nationally.
Late results before a dinner of leftover chicken and salad: it appears to be a Le Pen/Macron runoff with Macron, supported by the political establishment, the heavy favorite. Le Pen will no doubt run hard against the elites, charging them with abandoning hard working and struggling French citizens by allowing manufacturing jobs to disappear, then opening the public treasury for immigrants.
I am moving back to France. Not an easy decision, but in the end, the need for change won out. It was time, as my friends at 826 Valencia put it, for a new adventure. There are other reasons, of course. The high cost of living in San Francisco becomes a greater burden as I age and my ability to make money diminishes. The result of a lifetime of decisions made for reasons that did not enhance my bank account may just be that I cannot continue to live in this city I still love. So it goes. I can live with that.
The ascendance of the abominable Trump had something to do with it, but not very much, and, after all, I may very well be faced with President Le Pen, another malignant nightmare.
I was able to overcome election despair because volunteering at 826 gave me hope. The people who run this program are doing something terribly important by helping the children learn to think independently and inspiring them to express their thoughts. Teaching a child that what he thinks and feels really matters is an important step in countering the growing racism and misogyny that threatens us all, and the cynicism that allows it to happen. If I had even the smallest hand in helping a child find her voice, I will have done something worthwhile.
The booklet in the photo is indeed a treasure chest for me but the treasure is not in the memories, it is in the future of these bright and beautiful children who can create a world better than the one they will inherit. When Barack Obama was elected I thought we had achieved a significant milestone in our achingly slow climb out of the slough of genocide and slavery in which this country was born. Certainly the last election was a major setback but it doesn’t have to be fatal. I look at these children and realize their gift to me was a belief in the cyclical nature of progress. They can take back the future and we can help.
So I leave here with very mixed emotions. I do believe it is the best thing for me but I’m saddened to leave my very good friends and the extraordinary effort of hope that is 826 Valencia. I will, I must, find another way to contribute.
Just because I’ve returned to San Francisco doesn’t mean I’m divorced from France, it’s more a trial separation. A conversation with the Walkers trying to answer the question “what is a novel?” brought up a number of issues about how we fictionalize our lives. Selective memory enables us to rewrite the past and, in the present, we choose what to see and retain, especially when we travel, much as we choose what to include in the frame when we make a photo. So we’re always making stories and a novel is just one way of telling stories, something humans have been doing for a very long time.
J’adore la France, but it’s not easy to explain: I’ll always be a foreigner there and the French do not welcome strangers easily, yet I’m pretty comfortable and could probably live there, although not in a small rural village. I’m too much a city kid.
There’s still lots of Maury in my life: making prints for Tom and Susan, writing about Marcel and Carrie for Helen Tate’s company:
followed by a short Facebook conversation with Jean-Roger and Marie.
And there’s fiction too, but that’s not ready for prime time.
San Francisco is home and I’m happy to be here – although I might reconsider if the Giants don’t start playing better – but I miss the friends I made there and I’ll go back.
In the interest of fair play for California wine I stopped off at Tank 18, an urban winery and a new venue for Ann Walker Catering. It’s a nice industrial space South of Market with about six wines purchased and bottled under their own label.
Mary Ann did some business, Larry and I tasted and then I played with the iPhone’s panorama software and discussed mounting an exhibition here.
Sundays are family days in Maury: the oldest generation usually hosting the younger ones for long lunches. Next door, Therese’s son and daughter in law come every week and Therese is out early making sure no one takes their parking space in front of the house. Up and down the street, people arrive for lunch with an armload of baguettes and children in tow.
No market today, the boulangerie is open in the morning, then a little after noon the town goes quiet, everyone at table. I’d expect to see large-pot stews: coq au vin, perhaps a blanquette de veau or wild boar when the hunters have been successful in protecting the vines. The vin de Maury is an aperitif and the local grenache noir will anchor the entrée.
Today the wind is up, blowing through the valley with a force strong enough to shake this old stone walled house. It’s autumn and life is beginning to move indoors. Harvest is almost over with very few vineyards left to pick, colors are changing, evenings are a little cooler, sweaters and jackets reappear.
Families are back in their cars and heading home in the early evening as I go out for a walk. There are still a few hours of daylight and the quiet streets and fresh air are a pleasure. Although shutters are rattling and leaves blowing, it’s still warm and the air is soft. Businesses are closed and few people are out. The men have convened for their nightly photo op in front of the trompe l’oeil café, but the wind has kept the women from the olive tree salon. Occasionally the sound of a television leaks out onto the narrow streets and bounces off the close buildings.
Now here’s a hopeful sign posted on the window of the cafe.
If ever a business was in need of change it’s our café. Let’s hope for friendly proprietors, good pizza, sandwiches and local wine. Is that too much to ask?
This is a great time to walk up the road to Lesquerdes with camera and tripod and photograph the village and vineyards as the sun sets. It’s especially beautiful when the winds have recently blown through and cleared the air; the light seems to etch the edges of vines and mountains and picks out details not often seen. This quiet time also allows for longer and more contemplative shooting which lets me see the texture that the camera doesn’t always render but the mind can still record.
Watching the light change on the mountains, etching the shape of a 12th century chateau, evoking the age of the land itself brings an understanding that the Maury wine revolution and societal changes that will follow are a small part of the story. Yes, there will be changes, there’s money coming in and more will follow. Tourist trade will increase, hotels will be built, but I wouldn’t worry that new, more popular wines or the influx of foreigners like myself will spoil this place because wine is made in the vineyards. The land is unspoiled, the connection of the people to the land is profound and the continuity of generations that keeps this town alive preserves the spirit and traditions that make it a wonderful place to live.
Let me set the scene for you: about 7:30 AM, overcast sky, autumn chill in the air, steep hillside vineyard of old vine grenache noir between Maury and St. Paul.
Last night at dinner I had a lovely bottle of the 2007 Thunevin-Calvet “Les Dentelles”; this morning I’m photographing the 2011 harvest. Or, to be more precise, I’m chasing after Marie Calvet, trying to photograph her as she manages the crew, picks grapes, drives the truck and throws sticks for her dog, Boolah.
Marie and her husband, Jean-Roger run Thunevin-Calvet winery in partnership with Jean-Luc Thunevin. And Marie runs the harvest, really runs the harvest.
She has more energy than an oil company and no time to wait for the perfect photo. She’s a dynamo and it’s hard to photograph someone moving that fast in early morning light. Trudging up and sliding down the hill, bedecked with cameras and a bit of a hangover, I’m trying to keep up with her.
She has no mercy. I get to a vine and she’s finished. I focus and she ducks down for the low hanging fruit. I try to anticipate where she’ll go next and she’s off in a different direction. I turn to photograph another scene and she’s finished the row and moved down the hill. I’m getting better photos of the dog.
Finally, there’s a little rest for refreshment and I ask Marie to pose. She hates this and she can’t stand still, I get two shots and the break ends.
So we’re back at it and the sun and heat finally break through, sweatshirts come off, pants get rolled up but nothing slows down Marie. I’m starting to think I should photograph the rest of the crew and throw some sticks for the dog, but I really want something good of Marie at the harvest. I plan to follow the Calvets through the year, but the harvest is a special time and I really don’t have what I want yet. Keep pushing, if she can do it so can I. I’m encouraged when she walks past me, sighs and says “je suis fatigué”. Who knew?
Noon means lunch. I’m still not sure I have what I need but I know I’m done for the day. Marie tells me that they’ll be picking a beautiful vineyard up near Queribus next week and she’ll call and tell me when. I’ll be there.
I plan to invite Marie and Jean-Roger to dinner, but I’ll wait until after the harvest.
It’s a pretty common fantasy, from wage slaves in cubicles to CEO’s in corner offices, the dream of chucking it all to buy a vineyard and make wine is pervasive and sometimes persuasive. Few can do it, but if you have enough money and are willing to risk it, you can probably find a farmer willing to take a nice profit on a piece of land. Check out the lawyers and dotcom millionaires in the Napa Valley and look up a former Swiss banker in the Agly Valley by the name of Marcel Buhler.
There may be other dreamers in the banking houses of Zurich, but Marcel actually did it. He took off the tie, left the office, and is making wine the way he wants. Good move. Good wine.
I first met Marcel in January of this year when he was pruning vines and I was looking for a story. He taught me about pruning, I made some photos.
Now it’s the beginning of September and the picking has begun, white wine first, grenache blanc, grenache gris, maccabeu and a bit of carignane blanc. Marcel and a crew of seven or eight, including his wife Carrie Sumner, are working a small hilly vineyard between Maury and St. Paul.
Picking is done in the morning, starting around 7 AM and usually finishing by lunch although Marcel has been known to push ahead, skipping lunch when he can finish a vineyard by early afternoon. He is intensely focused, listening to music and blocking out as many distractions as possible. A crew that works with minimal direction and zero friction is essential and seemed to be a reality on the days I went out with them. The workers come from around Europe – Spain, Italy, Czech Republic – and the miracle of communication through the mélange of languages and accents is very impressive. They are, as you’d expect, mostly young, pursuing the romance, sleeping in cars, living free on the road. I can remember.
The method calls for cutting away the dried out berries that retain too much sugar for the blend. Doing this in the vineyard means the picking will take a little longer, but there’s no place in the production line to make this happen. It also means he needs pickers who are experienced and careful and since these workers are transient, every year is a new ballgame.
The grapes are collected in bins known as cagettes, which are trucked to the winery. This bit is important because of what comes next.
Yep, they do it with their feet. I’m thinking isn’t this sweet and pure and terribly romantic until Marcel explained the reasons for it. In his white wines, he wants to retain some of the flavor from the stems, but not too much. Putting the whole batch in a crusher would extract more from the stems than he wants in the wine. Crushing this way does not damage the stems, thereby limiting the contribution to the final wine.
Now I know exactly what you’re thinking, what does that feel like? Well, that’s exactly why I had to try it.
First off the grapes are warm, they’ve just come in from a very hot vineyard, and they’re tough. Those little maccabeu guys are meaty and slippery and it takes a while to get them crushed, big feet are a definite advantage in this business. Unlike dancing, it’s OK to look at your feet while doing this and it’s a good idea because as the juice increases, the berries become more mobile and harder to trap. Finally, there’s a lot of sugar in there, so it gets a bit sticky. This is definitely not the sensual experience of a lifetime and the main attraction for the workers just may be getting to take your shoes off and wash your feet after a morning in the vineyards.
From the feet to the press where the juice that flows free is pumped over the must several times before being pumped into a chilled plastic storage tank where it is left to rest and for the impurities to settle out. Temperature is kept below the point where fermentation can occur. Once the impurities have settled to the bottom, the juice is racked out to barrels for fermentation. Natural yeast, no filtering or fining.
It’s important to remember that this is an outline of Marcel’s methods; along the way he will make decisions based on testing, tasting and the kind of wine he wants to make. Others will do it differently, with different goals in mind, different resources, or simply because that’s the way they learned to make wine. I’ll look at a couple of different approaches in this blog and we’ll check back in with Marcel at different stages of the process.
The idea of moving to France goes back to the first time I landed there on a rainy night, not much money and no clue where to go. A friend and I had been on the road for a while and decided we needed a hotel for the night. Wandering empty streets, looking for a hotel or someone to ask, we see a driver pulling into a rare parking space and stop him to ask for directions. Putting the lie to every cliche about rude Parisians and giving up his parking space, he takes us to a nearby and very cheap hotel and thereby creates a bond with the country and the people that has only grown over the years.
Many visits and French lessons later I was in a management training program, playing games and doing exercises designed to move me up the ladder. We needed to select a goal and chart out the steps to get there; my goal was to own a house in France within five years and all my necessary steps added up to the height of the Eiffel Tower.
But things happen and some things you make happen.
Prospective partners appeared, web searches pinpointed affordable areas and turned up a real estate agent, one town led to another, and the right house came on the market. Finally, George Bush was reinstalled in the White House and I wanted to be sure there was somewhere else to go. We bought the house.
Maury is in the southeast corner of France, in a valley between the Pyrenees and the Corbieres mountains. It’s close to the Mediterranean and the Spanish border about three hours north of Barcelona. It is French Catalunya. Wine grows here and not much else and wine is the major source of income in the region. This blog will look at regional societal changes caused by globalization in the wine industry and generational changes in wine producing families.