Archive for March, 2008

Fraise a des fraises

Posted in Gardening, Journal, La France at 17:36

"Sarah Bernhardt" peony

Translation: “Strawberry has strawberries.” Hmm… Strawberry strawberries strawberried Strawberry strawberries. English is great. Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo! But I digress.

I was browsing a “nature products” store here (Nature et Découvertes) last week, waiting for a bank wire to come in that finally arrived this morning, and noticed they had a wild strawberry kit. At €16.50 I didn’t think it was worth it, so used the free inspiration to go to my favorite gardening store near Cours Saleya in Vieux Nice. Every time I’ve gone there they’ve been friendly and helpful, advising about plants and diagnosing the fungus malady that ravaged my maple tree last year — as seen in this photograph, my red maple is now healthy again. The store is Fiol Graines et Semences, 12 rue Alexandre Mari.

Their strawberry plants were only €1.50 a piece, or a tray of six plants for €6, and they had five different varieties from which to choose. Some strawberry varieties only give fruit once a year, while others produce throughout the summer and autumn. I chose these everbearing Ostara plants because their fruit is small (and tasty), and they do well in flower boxes. I could only find a commercial link about them: ostara strawberries.

To my delight, also in the store were peonies of all sorts! I fell in love with the flowers last year when I bought a bouquet of peonies on Cours Saleya. I decided on the “Sarah Bernhardt” variety shown in the photo above. It looks gangly now, but it’s still only March. I chose it because I liked the tree peonies less, and it says “pink” (rose) on the tag. Apparently the Sarah Bernhardt peony is a lovely one!

The owner also said they’d have tillandsia in another two weeks. My current apartment is going to be overflowing with plants before my move… (early spring is a great time to find plants.)

Floor plan fun

Posted in Journal, La France at 17:08

Cropped floor plan

I went to the bank as scheduled today, and would have signed the mortgage but for the fact that the banker had mistakenly put me down as being French. For that simple oversight, the dossier has to be officially re-approved, but it should go quickly. In any case I now have an official statement of a loan offer. I went to my real estate agent to give them a copy, and among the various required inspections, the Loi Carrez (basically, official surface area) had been done for my apartment, so now I have a nifty floor plan. The left side is north, the right side is south. The solid grey blocks in the walls are windows, and placard means “closet”. The floor plan shown above is a cropped view without the terrace/patio; click on the image to see the whole thing.

My terrace/patio looks (comparatively) huge, which is what it feels like in real life too. The living room/kitchen is quite nice as well! The layout gives the same sense of spaciousness as my visits have despite its modest overall size of 45sq.m/490sq.ft. I say “modest” but in reality, families of three regularly live in places with the same surface area due to the high prices here. The bedroom is more or less average for France at 12sq.m/130sq.ft (including the closet); 9sq.m/100sq.ft bedrooms are common. Also classically French is the separate toilet in a minuscule room (it’s only 80cm/2.5 feet wide). The bathroom is decently sized, but very oddly shaped — odd shapes are something you get accustomed to here. My completely unscientific hypothesis based on ten years of gathering purely anecdotal evidence is that the French have an unconscious aversion to straight lines and squares that manifests itself in random outbursts of roundabouts, quirky angles, and a maddening propensity to throw standard sizes to the winds. I mean, just look at the closet in my entry. I have no idea how or why they did that. (It is clever though, made to hold a washing machine in the back square part and with shelving elsewhere.)

Red teapot

Posted in Journal, La France at 16:40

Red teapot

The neatest little basic teapot was for sale in my favorite antique store. I couldn’t resist its curved simplicity and its red! I plan on replacing the old glass ceramic hob (cooktop for US English speakers) in my new apartment with an induction hob, so this metal teapot will be perfect for boiling water on it. There’s a commercial and North America-centric induction site here with better photos of hobs/cooktops. For the France-curious, one of the biggest chains for home electronics and appliances is Darty (“Gros ménager” is where you find the appliances). It’s the nearest to me, so I’ll likely be buying there. Castorama is another well-known home improvement store, and Habitat, although not French, has beautiful designs. I plan to get a bed from Habitat, and it’s going to be hard to keep myself from redoing the bathroom and kitchen in furniture from them — the temptation is strong.

How to lose a bank client

Posted in Journal, La France at 13:08

For the benefit of any bankers who want to send their clients running as fast as they can to competitors, here are a few quotes from my banker today. I wrote them down in French, so will give the originals and their translations.

After I asked whether it were possible to adjust monthly payments to account for salary increases:
“Oh oui, mais vous savez, il ne faut pas payer au début ! Je veux dire, il faut payer le moins possible !” (“Oh yes, but you know, you shouldn’t pay at the beginning! I mean, you should pay the least possible!”)
Reaction of a client who knows anything at all about how compound interest works: “Wow, that’s a great strategy for a bank to earn as much from the interest as possible, and get myself taken advantage of in another way too, because the principal is amortized more slowly.”

In response to my question on whether there were any fees associated with adjusting monthly payments:
“Oui, il y a des pénalités.” (“Yes, there are penalties.”)
I asked how much.
“Oh ben, les pénalités comme on peut en voir ailleurs.” (“Oh you know, penalties as can be found elsewhere.”)
I repeated my question as to the amount, specifying that it was free at some other banks.
“Hummm… à la date anniversaire, zéro virgule cinq du montant des frais de dossier du prêt.” (“Umm… on the [loan subscription] anniversary date, zero point five of the loan application fees.”)
My reaction: “La moitié des frais de dossier ??” (“Half of the application fees??”)
“Heu… zéro virgule cinq, heu, oui, c’est vrai, ça fait la moitié.” (“Uhhh… zero point five, uh, yes, true, that is half.”)
For information, the application fees are 900 euros. So in order to change payments, it can only be done on the loan anniversary date (rather common practice here), and it would cost 450 euros.

At the end of our meeting, after she’d proposed the worst interest rate by far at 5.01% for a 25-year loan and I’d reminded her that the worst offer I’ve had elsewhere was for 4.80% over 25 years:
“Il ne faut pas regarder les taux d’intérêt, m’enfin !” (“You mustn’t look at interest rates, come on!”)
I reacted by staring at her blankly.
“Mais oui, il ne faut pas regarder les taux. Il faut aussi prendre en compte les assurances, la garantie, les frais de dossier, et au lieu des taux, il faut regarder les mensualités.” (“That’s right, you mustn’t look at the interest rates. You should take into account insurance, the guarantee, loan application fees, and instead of the interest rate, look at the monthly payment amount.”)
Again I stared at her blankly, since their insurance was the same as elsewhere, their guarantee was a full 700 euros more expensive than the worst offer elsewhere, their loan application fee was twice as expensive, and the monthly payments were, naturally, more expensive… and I had to pay a fee to change them.
“Quoi ? C’est vrai, il ne faut pas regarder les taux d’intérêt qu’on vous propose. C’est la mensualité qui est importante. Gardez bien ça en tête,” she said with a motherly tone. (“What? It’s true, you mustn’t look at the interest rates proposed. It’s the monthly payment amount that’s important. Keep that well in mind.”)
Still staring at her, I calmly replied, “Madame, I know enough about finance to know that an interest rate is important.” She continued to insist it wasn’t, so I got up to leave.

The woman in question was none other than the vice director of the Nice branch of my bank. I’m being charitable by not giving their name. Let’s just say it’s the same French bank that “accidentally” lost a few billion euros recently, just in time to claim it as a loss on taxes for a very profitable year, and blamed the loss on a single employee. Not surprising at all, is it?

Maps, parcels, loans, taxes, fees…

Posted in Journal, La France at 13:48

Signing on my apartment is proving to be a great learning experience. I’ve always been shy, and dealing with all that surrounds such a major purchase, in a foreign country, for the first time ever anywhere, is not at all easy for me. I don’t have a partner to fall back on when I realize I’ve misunderstood or mistranslated a term; when an advisor makes an honest mistake counselling me, I’m all the more disoriented; and so forth.

Examples: I want a fixed interest rate on my loan and the possibility to adjust payments in the future, since it’s a near certainty that I’ll get a raise. A fixed-rate loan is called un prêt à taux fixe, and a variable-rate loan is called un prêt à taux révisable. Having seen all sorts of different terms for “adjustable payments”, for whatever reason I settled on using mensualités révisables. I’m going through a broker/advisor for my loans (I won’t say which until all has finished well), and when I used this term, he stared at me and said, directly but kindly, “that’s not the right translation, if you use that term bankers will take you less seriously – it causes confusion with taux révisable. The ability to adjust payments is called la modularité.” Oops.

It was then my advisor’s turn to throw me for a loop. He requested un relevé cadastral, required for the zero-interest loan, le prêt à taux zéro. (Side note: the PTZ, as it’s also commonly called here, is great if you’re single and live in Zone A: Paris and the French Riviera. The salary cutoff is rather high for a single person living in Zone A, so if, like me, you get a good deal on a place, it can be an enormous help.) He said I could get the relevé cadastral for the new place at the notary’s, or possibly by asking my real estate agent. He wrote it down for me. This puzzled me since I had a vague knowledge, thanks to so much translating over the years, that the cadastre is the official surveyor’s office. Also knowing that the PTZ requires the applicant not to have been a property owner in the two years preceding their application, I wondered why on earth a plan of my new place would be needed. Browsing the Internet, I noticed that what actually seemed necessary was a relevé cadastral of one’s current rental accommodation. I was still stumped, now wondering what a location map of my rented apartment had to do with getting a loan. After looking up both apartments on cadastre.gouv.fr (which is free until you purchase a map, quite fun actually, and very well-designed), I was even more bewildered. However, my experience over the years has shown me that France is a welcoming country for bewilderment, as long as you’re polite. And so, having learned that the service du cadastre is found at the service des impôts (tax office), I went there, confusion and all. It turns out that there are three types of documents the cadastre can deliver: une parcelle, un plan, and un relevé de propriété (parcel, map, and property statement). As soon as the lady said relevé de propriété I understood the reasoning, and she confirmed that it was the document needed for the PTZ. It proves that I live in an apartment that does not belong to me. Other documents — quittances de loyer, rent payment receipts, of which you need 24 (corresponding to two years) — give the owner’s name and prove that I’ve paid rent. The property statement then confirms that the place does indeed belong to the same owner. And it’s free!

Hopefully everyone’s begun to understand why I say “for the love of God, do NOT ask me about how to finance real estate purchases in France.” There is good, neutral information on loans and assistance written by the French ministry of housing and cities, but of course there’s a lot more beyond that. I’ve also found this “what to know when buying” very useful. For my loans I chose to go through a courtier, broker, specifically because I recognize that I know so little. It minimizes my chances of being taken advantage of by banks, what with all the various fees, insurances, types of garantie, and so forth. Being skeptical of brokerage services too, I researched as much as possible and nonetheless decided it was the better risk to take in my case, and would save me money if all goes well (as it should). I felt much better about this choice after speaking with one bank outside of my broker — the bank’s offer seemed great, and I’d been clear with them about what I wanted in terms of fixed interest and adjustable payments. I showed it to my advisor, who looked at it and said, “did they tell you that it’s only a fixed interest rate for the first three years? And that it’s variable afterwards? With no cap?” Why no, they hadn’t, and it wasn’t written anywhere in their offer. Since he knew the bank and its “code names” for loans, he was able to see it immediately, and was indeed correct.

Returning to the subject of plans, Google has a free 3D drafting/modelling tool called SketchUp, and Ikea has their easy-to-use Planner tools (US), also available in French. Even if you don’t buy Ikea furniture, it can be nice to play with furniture that’s the same size to see how it all fits together.

Cats and doors

Posted in Journal at 13:57

Peaceful

The same cartoonist who created the animation of a cat waking up his owner has done another, called Let me in. Again he captured the essential characteristics of felines. Malo does the very same things: he’ll go outside, then scratch on the door window and meow for me to let him back in. If I take more time than usual, because I’m on the phone, for instance, he’ll throw a meowing and claw-screeee-ing fit, sometimes even jumping onto the window and screeeeeee-ing his way down. In a variation on the plant-against-the-door tactic of the cartoon cat, Malo will begin munching on my plants to get my attention, since he knows it unnerves me to no end.

When I open the door, Malo then does exactly the same thing as the cartoon cat. He sits outside, looks at me quizzically as if to say, “why’d you open the door? I’m perfectly content out here,” and often enough, rather than come inside, he walks away to do some more pigeon-gazing.

(I’m home ill again. Again. This time I have antibiotics, so hopefully my tenacious sinus infection will finally go away for good.)

Apartment stories

Posted in Biographical, Journal, La France, Nice at 21:54

Terrace

Loan offers much better than my worst-case scenario are coming in, and with the compromis de vente (sale agreement, a legally binding document for buyer and seller) signed by all parties, barring exceptional circumstances, the apartment will be mine! These photos are from the advert (not mine), I’ll take other pictures when I have the chance — silly me forgot to do so when I had my handheld camera with me last time. The kitchen is a great size, and I like the bar. As mentioned before, the living room is decorated with fake rocks (which I’ll remove), and it has a cozy nook the right size for a couch. The façade is late art déco; the building is from the late 1940s/early 1950s. The arches on the upper balconies are repeated (without detailing) inside my place, over all the doorways. I love simple arches done like that on high ceilings.

As a few people (in real life and here) have mentioned, I’ve come a long way. The story, since its original telling isn’t online anymore: four years ago I broke up with my then-boyfriend of seven years. Four years before that, when my boyfriend and I arrived in Nice and found our apartment, he put the apartment rental agreement in his name only, explaining that it kept me safe from legal pursuit if anything happened. But when I broke up, he found a new place and I had no recourse on keeping the old one. As a foreigner with noone to act as guarantor, unmarried (single woman…), and a freelancer (i.e. no permanent job contract), landlords wouldn’t even consider renting to me. My ex also took all of the furniture, since without an apartment, I “wouldn’t need it.”

A few months later, I offered to take care of our cat, Malo, at my ex’s place for Christmas — I was living in a self-catering “apartment”, meublé in French, that didn’t allow animals. On Christmas Eve, I arrived at an apartment with no cat… no cat food dish… no litterbox… and no explanation. A few days later I learned that my ex had given away Malo as a Christmas present. (This parenthesis is where I gloss over my fury.)

A year after the breakup, I was still living in the meublé, whose owner was dropping unmistakable hints about renting my apartment to someone else for the summer. She started having prospective renters visit, since I had a lower rate than she could get from tourists in high season. One day in March, so depressed that I’d written about it on my blog, out of the blue I got an email from my current landlords, who read this site and so knew what was happening. They had an apartment that would be freed up soon — I visited and could hardly believe my eyes. It had a gas stove (I love cooking with natural gas), beautiful light, was furnished, and they hoped Malo would be able to enjoy it some day.

As if that weren’t miracle enough, a couple days after moving in, the “gift recipient” of Malo decided that cat fur was not something she wanted to deal with. That same day, Malo was back — and so was my bookcase, amazingly enough. Another big “thank you” to Landlord T and Landlord S, as well as family members who helped — without their generosity, I honestly have no idea how I would have managed.

Life has fallen back into place since then, accumulating my own furniture gradually, having a permanent job contract, and soon, my own home. I’m happy to say that living out of my hiking backpack in a dark, cockroach-infested hotel without my cat is now only a rough memory that I can look back on and sigh with relief. And I am so, so happy to have been able to stay in Nice. It has its quirks, to be sure, but I’ve come to love it. I never imagined while growing up in the countryside near Springfield, Oregon, that one day I’d own a place on the French Riviera.

Nearly a homeowner

Posted in Journal, La France, Nice at 20:55

Last Saturday I stumbled via SeLoger.com onto a 45 square meter (480 square foot) apartment with an 18 square meter (200 square foot) covered terrace — with northern exposure, on a quiet side street, 200 meters/yards from a Nice-Sophia bus stop (!!!) and 300 meters/yards from a tram stop. The ad said it was in good shape and selling for 120K, a price I could afford. On Tuesday evening I visited and made an offer for 115K, which was accepted Wednesday evening, and this afternoon I signed the compromis de vente. In other words, unless no bank is willing to finance me (technically 2 banks would have to refuse), which is rather unlikely though not totally impossible, I’m the proud owner of an apartment in Nice!

In a part of France reputed for its “cheapest” properties going for 5000 euros per square meter, I got 2500 euros per square meter! (Conversion: 240 euros/square foot. I don’t convert the euros into dollars because as purchasing power goes, the reality is that a French person with a euro in France basically has the same as an American with a dollar in the US. Obviously this changes the moment the French person purchases anything outside of France, and vice versa.) It should be said that you can find 3000-4000 euros per square meter here, but you need to have done your research on Nice quartiers, be patient, not have your heart set on a view of the Mediterranean, and usually be willing to do some work on the place. I’m quite lucky in that nothing urgent needs to be done — a few cabinet and closet doors could be replaced, some shelves need another nail, and I plan on repainting, but that’s all. Why the low price then? It’s half underground and has fake rocks glued onto one wall! (Fake rocks that I wholeheartedly plan on removing myself.) The southern end of it is underground, and the terrace is at ground level. Other prospective buyers were put off at having to walk downstairs to reach the apartment entrance. I personally find it nice, especially since the summer sun won’t be pounding on any part of my place.

All that said, I must admit to feeling a bit of panic. The apartment is great: high ceilings, nooks with arches, several closets, an enclosed laundry room, separate toilet, good-sized kitchen with real wood cabinets and bar, electrical and water all updated within the last two years, no signs of water or structural damage, in a beautiful stone art déco building from the late 1940s, a lovely terrace on an inner courtyard (i.e. no street noise) that fills the living room and kitchen with light, and the terrace is enclosed (with green wiring that’s nearly invisible) because the previous owners had cats! There’s even a cat door. Malo will be in cat heaven and I won’t have to worry about him visiting neighbors. So it’s not the place itself behind my mild panic, but rather the realization that I’m really going to have a home all my own and what that’s going to entail financially for a good deal of my life. As it’s an apartment, the notion of copropriété applies.

Photos will come as soon as a bank has agreed to finance me, which should be within two or three weeks. I’ve been browsing apartments for a while now and have been given good advice by people here (thanks to all of you, you know who you are!), but it all still makes me a bit light-headed. (For the love of God, please do not ask me for information about financing real estate in France. Contact a French bank or three, and read up on other loans/financing available.)