Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Election


            Okay, I've got to get this off my chest and out of the way so bear with me. If  you're one of the foaming-at-the-mouth right-wing shitheads I'm going to be on about, my advice is to stop right here because I'm only going to piss you off.

            There's been a video clip from a TV show called "The Newsroom" going around on Facebook (and probably emails if you're still living in the stone age). I've never seen this show but have seen the clip so I'm guessing the episodes have something to with a TV news program. Anyway, if you haven't seen it, the character played by Jeff Daniel's is a Republican newscaster who, on the air, rips the GOP to shreds . For the last 5 years I've been giving this same speech almost word for word until my family and almost everyone I know is sick of it. As this election mercifully nears, it's frightening to me that the outcome is still in doubt.

            The first campaign button I ever wore was for Barry Goldwater when I was 12 years old and my family was the Ivory-billed woodpecker of politics - Republicans in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Our roots in the party go all the way back to the 1880’s when it really was the party of Lincoln and my German great-grandfather joined the GOP as soon as he became a citizen.

            So I became a Republican in 1972 and voted for Nixon. Truthfully, if that same election were held tomorrow I'd do the same simply because McGovern was too far left for me. (I did not, however, think he was evil or the tool of Satan.) Then the party had moderates, conservatives and even liberals. There were gays and straights, pro and anti-war and pro and anti-death penalty. It was a big tent, full of ideas and people who knew how to get things done. That’s what made them attractive to me. They weren't rigid ideologues and the racist right wing nut cases were almost all Democrats. I was what used to be called a Rockefeller Republican but the only place you'll find one now is in a history book, again like the Ivory billed woodpecker.

            My apostasy started during the Reagan administration when the Conservative movement took permanent root. I've always thought of myself as essentially conservative with a small c but after Bill Clinton's election (thanks to that jug-eared fool Ross Perot), when New Gingrich and his ilk came along, the GOP message became increasingly shrill until it was clear that these people called themselves Conservatives because it sounded better than Bigot.  In 2004 I voted for a Democrat for the first time in my life and now cannot, in good conscience, consider voting for any Republican ever again.

             If I had ever harbored doubts about the wisdom of my choice, this past Republican primary season would have taken care of it. If anyone who was around when Gerry Ford was in the White House (and haven't forgotten that, at least in part, it was Ronald Reagan's challenging of a sitting President that led to Jimmy Carter) can tell me with a straight face that that crop of fundamental Christians, mental mediocrities, charlatans and out and out crackpots was the best the GOP could offer, well, I'd hate to see what the alternatives would have been. And for good measure, Sarah Palin is the first person ever to run for national office that I have no doubt I'm smarter than.

             More than anything else, what upsets me is the Christian Fundamentalism that is at the heart of every current Republican policy. I keep reading about the waning Tea Party and I'll believe it when I see it. But every week brings some new outrage brought on by some obscure, almost always Southern, Republican's opinion as to what constitutes God's will and how his thinking lines up with it. That doesn't seem to show any sign of waning. The worst thing Ronald Reagan ever did was to bring God into politics. And because of the GOP's attachment to the Bible, you don't have to look any farther than what's being taught in Texas schools to figure the United States is on its way to being the world's richest and most ignorant third world country.

              Which leads us to November 6. Make no mistake, if the last 4 years have shown me anything, it's that Democrats are just as easily cowed and incompetent as I've always thought they were. But I'm also sure that no President since Abraham Lincoln has seen such complete and total opposition. The debt crisis should have proven, once and for all to anyone that was paying attention, that Republicans were willing to drive the country off a cliff before co-operating in any way with Obama. This is patriotism and American Exceptionalism?

                That Mitt Romney, a person who has demonstrated beyond doubt that he will say anything he thinks will get him elected, represents the cream of the GOP crop is a good indication of the party's complete intellectual bankruptcy. There is some evidence that he might not make a bad President but you won't get just him, you'll get his whole party so the question is,  "Does the United States really want a de facto theocracy?" I hope not but it looks like at least half the country thinks otherwise. If Romney wins, all I can say is, "You're on your own".

                 Frankly, I'm not sure why I'm bothering with all this. Most people made up their minds a long time ago and if you haven't there's a good chance you're dumber than a bag of hammers. Anyway this has just made my stomach hurt so maybe I should  have just let this guy do the talking in the first place:



Monday, October 22, 2012

Cherchez La Ferme, Part 2




     As you might recall, Part 1 ended with our house hunting efforts going south and Cynthia marshalling forces against financial ruin. However, to understand her approach to money matters, a little background is in order. 

      Cynthia has been looking after our accounts, such as they are, for most of the time we've been together. When I met her, we were both working in New York City and barely scraping by. So I was amazed and impressed to find out that her savings account contained 5 times what mine did and on half the salary. Her father was the only person I know of that a stockbroker actually fired as a client. The need to control his finances was so intense that he ended up having to drive 120 miles from Lafayette, Louisiana, to New Orleans and the only guy in southern Louisiana with the patience to deal with him.  So it's in her blood and she's good at it.

      You might also recall that we had been having trouble finding a place in Bordeaux because of an unusually low rental supply and our lack of in-country credit history. Most of the houses we were shown had some potential but for one reason or another we just couldn't see ourselves living in them. My wife's an old house person and old houses in the States have limitations of their own but, once again, it's different here. For one thing, judging from the size of most of the bedrooms, during the Belle Epoque everyone in France was the size of Toulouse Lautrec. And in a country that's very name is synonymous with sex, the most popular position must have been standing up.

       Many rentals here don't come with appliances - no refrigerator, washer, dryer and, in some cases, no stoves. We were anticipating having to spend a small fortune so when we finally found a fully equipped apartment we liked, it looked like we were home free. The owner spoke perfect English, was very accommodating and had actually gone to college in Lafayette and once lived in New Orleans. Plus Alexandrine, our relocation agent, thought that because she knew the rental agent, we would probably be spared a "caution", as the escrowed rent account is called. But when our copy of the proposed lease came, it contained stipulations that we pay all rental fees, 6 months rent in advance plus escrow a year of rent for three years. Not only did this come as a complete shock, it meant that our bank account would be drained and then some. I have to admit that my attitude was that there wasn't much we could do about it. If we wanted to stay in this country we might as well admit defeat and see about taking the money from my 401(k).

      This was too much for my wife and she called up her inner Blutarsky. "Over? Did you say over? Nothin's over until we decide it is." And no way was she letting anyone tie up as much as a dime (7 centimes) for three years.  I'd like to say that she charged into the rental office and forced them into a deal completely on our terms. But Cynthia absolutely refused to accept that theirs was the only solution and dug in her heels. In the end we still got screwed but not as much and at least had a few euros and our dignity left over.  A car, however, is going to have to wait but since our new place is right smack in the heart of Bordeaux, we're pretty sure we can do without one for a while.

      Before moving to France we heard horror stories about the bureaucracy and its fonctionnaires so had concentrated most of our efforts at trying to anticipate what we'd need for visas and permits. Our difficulty finding a home was completely unexpected since nothing we had read or heard gave us any reason to worry. In contrast, we virtually breezed through the immigration process and are now the proud holders of a carte de sejour, a residency permit.  So big government was no trouble and free enterprise nearly ruined us. There could be a moral here.
      
       This is how our experience sometimes felt.


       And in case you didn't get the Blutarsky reference:

     

 


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Cynthia's Turn


Mon Vieux: n. m. (familiar) my old man, my old friend.

I met Bruce in New York in the late 80s when the city was literally crawling with homeless people. Every street corner, subway car and park bench was home to some pitiful soul begging for money. And Bruce, having “herded drunks” for five years as a Phoenix cop, had an attitude of zero tolerance for these folks. On more than one occasion I could be seen cowering behind him, while he berated some fool who had the temerity to ask for change or a spare cigarette. One altercation in the Times Square area ended with the words “You ol’ nasty stinkin’ white man!” hurled at Bruce (which I have to admit I’ve done myself on more than one occasion in the intervening years).

So you can imagine my reaction yesterday when we encountered a young, burly, barefooted drunk, intent on blocking our path in the beautiful Public Garden. As the man spoke his first words, I turned around, flung out a quick “Je ne parle pas francais” and hightailed it out of there, fully expecting Bruce to follow.

But no. France has worked some sort of magic on my often impatient husband, and for the next few minutes I watched from a safe distance while these two strangers struggled to converse, as each in his own way was having trouble with words. Bruce first explained that he didn’t speak very good French, and I was alarmed to hear the other loudly insist that “This is France. One MUST speak French!“ But it was quickly apparent that the situation was safe and when I got close I could hear that they were discussing politics! Now anyone who knows Bruce will not find this surprising, but I think it was the drunk who had introduced the subject.  About the time I caught up with them the guy was asking my husband what he thought of the situation in Europe. But to top it off, he kept referring to Bruce as “mon vieux” or my old friend. To my mind this is a vast improvement over “you ol’ nasty stinkin’ white man” and I think it bodes well for our future here.


Editors Note: I don't know what it says about me, but this is the first French speaking guy I've  understood.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Cherchez La Ferme, Part 1.


Warning and Disclaimer: The first few paragraphs are really tedious.

     We’ve been here nearly a month and it looks like we finally found a place to live. It hasn’t been easy. As it turns out we perfectly timed our move to coincide with an unusual shortage of available rentals. Further complicating this is that we have no credit or taxpaying history here so our options were really limited.

     As it’s been explained to us, the French take a dim view of putting someone into the street, especially in winter or a bad economy, so they’ve have made it nigh on impossible to get rid of deadbeat renters. Preventive measures include insurance policies that guarantee rent payments, but you can only get this if you have a tax history in France. This stymies even some of the French since young people just starting out can’t qualify either.

     The term of the typical lease here is three years, so another solution requires the renter to deposit 36 months of rent into an escrow account. You can’t just pay rent in advance because leases can be legally broken with sufficient notice so both sides are saved the hassle of recovering unpaid funds.
So the places we can rent are limited to those being let by the owners themselves or by smaller rental agencies that presumably need the business and so are a bit more lax. The U.S. economy was ruined because the only question asked of people buying million-dollar houses was, “You got the money, right?” That we might have a problem renting a place to live just never occurred to us.  Plus things in the States are more landlord friendly and in fact a lot of Americans have taken the attitude that if you’ve lost your job and can’t pay the rent it’s your own damned fault anyway for not being rich in the first place. Not only that, but if you’ve been really successful at chucking people into the street, we think you’d make a damn good President. I digress.

     For at least a year, Cynthia has been scanning rental ads from Bordeaux. There is no such thing as a multiple listing, so each property is advertised by the owner or a specific agency with no sharing of information. The closest you get to a multi-list are websites like seloger.com and leboncoin.com, the latter being a sort of French craigslist. It’s apparent that the philosophy here, as far as what makes an ad effective, is, well, the standards are a bit less stringent than in the US. Before we rented our house in St. Petersburg, the rental agent explained how we were going “stage” the place. First of all, there should be no empty rooms, so we had to shift a bunch of stuff around to give every room some purpose. Also, flowers are good, so we bought a couple of bouquets that were strategically moved around during the photo shoot. I think we even bought new towels so the bathroom would look like the perfect place to linger over the Sunday New York Times Crossword Puzzle.
The best you can say for most French ads is they at least create a more realistic picture of what life could be like in your new home. Trying to find a good illustration, I checked exactly three ads before finding this.

And Cynthia also noted that, time after time, ads would have just one picture that didn’t seem to have any relationship to the apartment listed, like these two:
Still others left you wondering whether it showed some feature only the French understood or the camera had gone off by accident.
 You can check this yourself by logging on to any of the sites like seloger.com, leboncoin.fr or vivastreet.fr.

     While I was writing this, we entered into what can charitably be called negotiations for what turned out to be the best place we saw. When we were presented with a contract, including fees and deposits, that would have left about 8 Euros in our bank account, my wife showed what she’s made of by guarding what’s left of our money like a lioness does her cubs.






Sunday, October 7, 2012

Chiens


                

                 The idea of cleaning up after dogs does not seem to have caught on here. Although Bordeaux isn’t as bad as Toulouse (which our friends blame on the Socialist mayor) there's enough dog shit on the sidewalks here that you have to pay constant attention to an area no more than about 6 feet in front of where you're walking. On top of all this, career panhandlers that are always accompanied by two or more huge dogs inhabit every French city we've ever been to and Bordeaux is no exception. They congregate in busy pedestrian areas and are probably using these dogs for sympathy from the easily touched but it seems to me that cute lap dogs would be more effective than a breed that reminds you of the unpleasantness of 1940-44.  Needless to say, these things leave log-sized turds all over the place and it never fails that the instant my guard drops I’m skating on brown ice. 
                  Like Americans and their kids, there doesn’t seem to be any place a French person will not take a dog. Unlike American kids, most of the dogs we’ve encountered have been well behaved and obedient. Many of the shops have a resident dog and it’s common to pass a café or pub where a basket at the end of the bar contains a sleeping cat.
             Last Sunday we drove to a little town that was holding its annual vide grenier, or emptying the attic – a yard sale. (Incidentally, the shit French people are trying to get rid of doesn’t look any better than the shit Americans are trying to get rid of.) Stopping for lunch in a little restaurant in Cadillac (no mention of the car that bears it’s name) we found most of the tables around us had small dogs beneath them. All of them sat patiently waiting for whatever it is dogs wait for, although one of them would occasionally bark at dogs passing on the street outside. Other than that we didn’t hear a peep out of them.  After he’d eaten his lunch, the guy with the occasional barker gave it his plate to lick, which wigged us out a bit since you’re never sure how well the dishes get cleaned. This same guy had also helped his tablemate drain a bottle and a half of rosé so this dog was probably used to a slightly longer leash when his owner’s judgment is impaired.

          I’ve had a strained relationship with dogs the past few years, in part because I’ve lived next door to a family of douchebags who sometimes had as many as six barky dogs running around. When we first moved in, the old guy across the street was already so fed up he had taken to shouting "Shut those god-damned dogs up" through a bullhorn. The first time I asked for a little consideration, what I heard was, “It’s only for a couple of minutes, it’s what dogs do.” Sorry is never a word in these types of people’s vocabulary.  All in all, I think I’ve seen enough here to feel that France may help put me back on dogs again.
          Before I go much farther, I should probably make some kind of disclaimer to the effect that, at this point, the conclusions and opinions about my new home are all subject to the possibility that I could be completely full of shit. I’ve heard people who’d spent a couple of weeks outside the U.S. make broad, sweeping pronouncement about the places from which they’ve just returned-places they probably experienced from the comfort of a tour bus or for a couple of hours near where the boat stopped. So everything I say in these early days might be subject to later revision but I think I’m right about the dogs. Now, if someone could just get their owners to use pooper-scoopers.

In France, a dachshund is called a teckel and this one was just sitting there outside a shop watching the world go by.