Living under a rock

Since we arrived in France we’ve been almost entirely without real, bonefide, always connected, not worrying about data limits 21st Century Internet (and hence, Wi-Fi) in the house. For a holiday, no big deal. For an adventure in a new country when you have a million things to sort out, friends and family to keep in touch with, bills and moving practicalities to put to bed, a zillion questions flying around in your head, and a whole new language to learn, it’s a real pain in the arse. Do you know how many times a day you reach for Google? No, because the odds are you just pick up your phone or lift the lid on your laptop and Google away. Not being able to Google anything is amounts to not getting things done on steroids. Do you want to know what days the markets are? Tough, you’ll have to wait until you pass a tourist office and ask there, if they’re open. Which estate agents have properties you want to look at it? No idea. You’ll just have to go into each town and wonder round aimlessly until you find one then go in and be at their mercy. Want to make a cheeky offer on an overpriced house? No-can-do because the agents will only show you houses within 10,000 euros of your stated budget so as not to do themselves out of oodles of commission. Ah, so you want to search LeBonCoin, to bypass the agents and buy direct? Hahaha, no chance. Oh, you also want to reassure the grandparents that their grandchildren will remember them? (Yes, we’d been gone barely two weeks and my mum actually said that to me.) Well, Skype is out of the question. Do you need to find a phone number, maybe a phone number for calling from outside the UK to notify a utility company that you’re not at your old address? Good luck with that one, buddy! You can dial 0800 numbers until you’re blue in the face. No-one can hear your screams. And don’t even get me started on YouTube. It’s impossible learn to do anything that an instructional video could teach you. Every now and again I’ve set my mobile to allow roaming data because I just can’t take any more but try learning a new fold for the cloth nappies (I know there’s a fold for a heavy wetter – boy – out there) based on some fairly shoddy step-by-step drawings and you will fail, trust me. So there you have it.

The only workaround we have is to piggyback on a neighbour’s setup. In theory this means we can take it in turns to wander up the road and sit on a step opposite said neighbours house to use their Wi-Fi. In practice this means James thinks of something he needs the internet for then trots off up the road leaving me pinned under the smalls. Since we got here at least one of them seems to be breastfeeding at all times. Lord knows what’s going on with DD but for a small child of almost three she spends more time on my boobs than the baby. The times that I’m pinned under both of them are when my new found inability to mindlessly surf the Internet – usually reading blogs of women the World over similarly pinned under at least two small children and trying despeartely to see the funny side – is most keenly felt. To make matters slightly worse, getting it sorted is almost entirely in the hands of the property manager, who seems to have trained at the chocolate teapot school of effectiveness. Let’s just say we’re not hopeful that any of this will be sorted any time soon. In the meantime, you can find me under a rock (disguised as a couple of small and hungry humans). Send a telegram or something.

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Welcome to France! And now for a crash course in not getting things done.

One of the criticisms often bandied about the UK’s nearest neighbour is that it takes a long time to get anything done. By coincidence, one of DD’s favourite movies is the Muppets: Most Wanted, which parodies this stereotype brilliantly with a detective who downs tools for a long lunch and then goes on a 3-month holiday. Anyway, as if to welcome us in true French style and ensure we set our expectations low, we were treated to our first taste of this on our very first full day here.

Before we arrived we had arranged with the gite owner two prices: one for the place with and another for without Internet. Suspecting that we wouldn’t have fixed line Internet we’d done some research and found some fairly reliable and potentially inexpensive, at least comparable to £50 per month, mobile alternatives. However, a 4G LTE solution that would be temporary and fairly immediate to set up while also providing enough data for us to get our work done would have set us back of 100 euros a month, as a French bank account is usually needed for the more sensibly priced solutions, with month-by-month plans targeted more at tourists, so having a fixed line installed and running bog standard ADSL or, ideally, VDSL Internet was definitely preferrable. So we were pleased when the gite owner e-mailed me in the week we were moving out here to say that Internet was going in on the day we were arriving, which would mean fully operational Wi-Fi. Yay! Yes, it was going to cost us a little more but it was definitely the low-hassle option. So that was the Internet issues dealt with.

Next up was heating. We’d taken this particular gite over the winter on the basis of it having a wood burner installed, as we didn’t fancy spending the winter here without one. The owner assured us they were putting one in, so we were happy enough that at least we’d be warm; we’d manage without Netflix but heat was not something we were going to compromise on given the proximity to the mountains. So imagine our delight when we turned up to no Internet and – yes, you’ve guessed it – no woodburner!

But it was all fine and under control, apparently. Debbie, the property manager, explained that the telecoms engineer would be arriving at 2pm on the day we were expecting to collect our cats to finish the installing the phone line. At roughly 3.30pm the telecoms guy turned up. By 5pm the cable was installed but no Internet – actually the line wasn’t working at all; for that to happen Orange needed to do something and then someone else, maybe him again, would come in to finish the job. At some point int he future. Obviously he gave no indication of when either of those things could or will happen but gave a very definite shrug of the shoulders.

And the woodburner? Well, they ordered it over a month ago and it was due to arrive “on Friday”. The big question seemed to be, which Friday!? No-one seemed to know. It seemed that at some point, most likely on a Friday, the woodburner would arrive. In the mean time we should expect a guy to come round to cap off the chimney to prevent the forecast rain dripping into the living room. True to form, said guy never showed up, so we spent the first week, when it rained and then some, with buckets and a plastic sheet adorning the floor under the gaping hole that was the chimney for said missing stove. Then there was the question of whether the woodburner arriving at the shop would translate into the woodburner being installed. We suspected not but we were proved wrong and, yes, by virtue of having been here just over a month, we are lucky enough that the woodburner has now been installed and bar a few technical hitches (like the self-assemble handle just falling off) we have heat, which is nice on the cooler evenings.

The phone line on the other hand? Well, that is a tale that rumbles on with no end in sight. If you’re reading this (or any posts I’ve made since we arrived) the chances are I posted them while sitting on this step outside a neighbour’s house, thanks to the generous “loan” of his Wi-Fi password, but people are generous here, so it’s worth the wait and also gives us something to talk about every time they leave the house and find one of us sitting outside – and I can think of worse places to sit. Welcome to France!

What’s in these boxes anyway?

Here’s the final installment of our move: day 5, when the boxes arrived from the UK. We’ve been here a month now – actually, exactly one month tomorrow! We’ve not found a new permanent home yet but we are making new friends, loving the sunshine, and settling into a new way of life. More on that another day. So far, so good.

*****

Have we put our watches forward or not? On Day 5, the last day to be dominated by moving-related activities, that was the million dollar question. With Matthew James delivering our stuff sometime between 8am and 9am and “a lot to do before then” (James’s words) we were in for another early start; 6.45am, as it turned out all our clocks were already on French time. I thought it was unusually dark for 7.45am. Oh well, what’s another hour of sleep anyway?

At around 8.50am we got a call. The lorry had arrived – great – but we had gone over the space we were quoted, 10 cubic metres instead of 7, so had to make an extra payment before they would deliver our stuff. Fine, I guess. When all your worldly goods are within a mile of your home and that’s the only way to get them back, what can you do?! It wasn’t so easy to sort out though. The gite still had no Internet, so we couldn’t look the number up online to give their office a call. The paperwork they’d given us on collection only gave their web address and e-mail, no phone number, so we were in a bit of a fix. Bullet Journal to the rescue, as I’d noted the phone number down when calling a couple of months earlier, so was able to find the contact number and call to get it all figured out. But then, how to send the payment without access to online banking? I needed to check my account balances, maybe move some money between accounts, and then set up the new payment, but before that I needed a phone number for the bank that I could call from outside the UK, and how on earth was I supposed to find that without going online!? Luckily my phone had some credit so I cautiously enabled data roaming. The banking app worked a treat and the call us button dialled without issue, despite being an 0300 numer. Phew. A few security checks later, it was all sorted. After a quick call to Matthew James to confirm, the lorry was on the way up to us and James was on his way to the meeting point with the Passat, which we were using as a shuttle vehicle between the lorry and the gite.

As with the collection, the guys that turned up were incredibly helpful, polite and professional, even if some of the boxes had been a little trashed in transit. It didn’t take long for everything to be unpacked and stored away in the upstairs room. Marvellous! Bringing everything into this small space, it really does seem that we have alot of stuff but when I think of the amount of stuff we didn’t bring, it is pretty much essentials or too-expensive-to-replace items only. Still, we had some rearranging to do before we could get our beds set up and straighten our living space out a bit and we decided that was for another day as we needed to go out and pick up some supplies. We were still living off the cash we’d withdrawn on the Friday, due to the card cancelling fiasco, so needed to be cautious about spending, which meant simple meals and quiet days knocking around the gite. After so much activity over the last few days and months that was just what we needed though, so after the shops we headed back for a late lunch and a lazy afternoon. Time to bond and regroup.

Road Trip, Part 4: A Tale of Three Kitties

The day after our drive down from the UK was the day to pick up the cats with our destination a service station on the A9 just outside of Narbonne. The Garmin reckoned it would take one and a half hours to get there so we needed to be up and out for 8am to make the 9.30am pick up time that Stacey from Pets2Go2 had texted to me the night before. That was no mean feat given how tired we were after three very busy days and as many late nights, but we’d all slept really well so managed to get up in good time. Unfortunately, due to the two-child effect and a general go-slow on all our parts, we didn’t quite make it out of the door at 8am, which meant we were running late before we’d even got started. The Garmin ETA was now 9.48am. Oh well, at least it wasn’t sending us anywhere silly; after the interesting navigation preferences it had shown us the day before we were prepared to override any odd suggestions as they came up and I was armed with the map, albeit the “faulty” Michelin one. So we were running late but at least we were on our way and DD was excited about picking up the cats.

As we were going along I got a text from Stacey: “Services heading south,” to which I replied, “towards Barcelona?” Yes, that was right. All fine, until I realised that the services we were aiming for were north of Narbonne, which meant we were heading North and not South at all. How could that happen? James was adamant that he had programmed the co-ordinates they provided into the Garmin and that they took us to a Total petrol station on the northbound carriageway but my text from Stacey suggested otherwise. So we added another 10 minutes to the journey time which meant we were now beyond acceptably late. To add to the general level of tension, DD decided she had had enough of all the driving and travelling and was also pretty hungry so spent the last 30 minutes of our journey screaming and shouting her head off (“I want booooobbeeeeeeee!!!!!”). DS also woke up crying (also hungry and probably furious about waking up in the car again) so we were all feeling pretty traumatised when we finally pulled into the services.

The Pets2Go2 van was there, ready and waiting, albeit not all that patiently (the driver made a snarky comment about them now being 30 minutes late for their next stop) and the cats where sitting happily enough in their cages. Bitty was already in his carrier so was easy to collect. James put the other two in theirs and moved the cats over to our car while I dealt with the two screaming smalls. James then dashed into the services to pick up some emergency croissants and a couple of coffees, as we hadn’t had chance to eat anything, after which we were off again. The cats were happy enough – quiet for most of the way and not bothered by a 10-minute stop to pick up some supplies from the supermarket – and both smalls were happy again, having been fed. Phase 2 over, time to relax a little more.

Once back at the gite we released the cats into their new home and put our feet up. It was a scorching 32 degrees outside, 28 degrees inside. Star and Ty took to the stairs and just crashed out, spending most of the day asleep there, while Bitty managed to disappear within an hour of being in the house. How does he do that?! The only other mishap that day was DD getting bitten by the Bitty after trying to persuade him out of his hiding spot. You’d think she’d learn – or at least heed our warnings! Other than that it was wonderful to at last take a breathe and gather ourselves together, reunited after our long journeys. I enjoyed an afternoon nap with with the smalls and pottered around with them while James sorted out the Broadband Guy. More about that another time.

Road Trip, Part 3: Le Mans to our New (Temporary) Home in France

After a much better night than we’d had in a while we woke up just before 8am and headed into the restaurant for our breakfast. The restaurant was lovely and clean, just like the room, and there was plenty of food to choose from. Result. DD was still pretty excited about her whole overnight in a hotel experience, which translated into mucking about wanting different things but not really eating anything. A few croissants and a small amount of packing later and we were on the road and quickly back on the autoroute heading towards Amiens. Not bad for 9.30am. Within 20 minutes both littlies were asleep. Looking good. The plan for the day was to drive for 2 hours then stop and continue onwards in the same stop-start fashion until we arrived at our new home. The Garmin estimated an 8.5-hour journey with an arrival time of 6pm. With stops that amounted to another 12-hour day but we had to work around the smalls, stopping as needed.

After a fairly manageable day one it turned out we were in for a more chaotic day two, mostly because the novelty of being strapped in a car seat for the best part of every waking our had worn off for DD. She stayed awake longer, whinged more, slept less, screamed a whole lot. We made a couple of stops, one in “hang in their” mode, as we really didn’t want to stop before 2 hours unless we had to, so managed to persaude DD to hold out until what would normally have been lunch time. There was a point in our journey where we came off the autoroute and wiggled across country, from Poitier to Limoges, before joining the A20 and continuing southward towards Toulouse. As chief navigator I decided that would make a good place for a pitstop too, so after driving through a couple of small towns and completely missing the turnings for their Aires, we pulled into Mazerolles.

Now, I really wouldn’t mind terrible food in France if so much wasn’t made of the quality of English food. Let’s just say the offerings at this particular stop were laughable. In the end we paid the best part of ten whole and precious euros for some chips, a frankfurter sausage, and some potato salad. Okay, fine you might say, but there was no mayo, no vinegar, nothing. Just chips, the ketchup that they came sprayed with, a sorry looking sausage (meat content undoubtedly <50%) and this very odd and very small salad which was quite clearly made with mayonnaise. Since our primary aim of this particular pit stop was to feed and water DD in the hope that she would drop off to sleep for some of the afternoon, it was definitely towards the failure end of the success barometer.
And did I mention it was pushing 32 degrees outside? On the upside it was a nice spot. There was a lake for DD to potter around and, had we been better organised (or even just been bothered to walk over the road to the boulangerie!), a lovely spot for a picnic. If you do decide to stop here on your way through France, either take provisions or buy from over the road!

After our very disappointing lunch, we were back in the car and on our way. We picked up some diesel from a local garage, knocking 20 cents off the price on the autoroute, and cracked on. Limoge? Check. Here’s where it got though in terms of navigation, as my Michelin Tourist and Motoring Atlas, newly purchased from the services at Maidstone, ran out of pages! Yes, my new map, bought solely as backup to the Garmin for this trip, was- and still is, missing pagses 207 to 251! Actually, it also has two lots of pages 205 and 206, but that’s beside the by. What this meant was I had to navigate very loosely from the large scale maps that more or less just show the autoroutes. Luckily, I am crazy about maps so actually rather enjoyed all of this. Luckily, the Garmin was plotting a steady course entirely consistent with the one we had preplanned via the Michelin site and most of the journey from Limoge was just one long slog on the A20, so the map wasn’t needed. Onward towards Toulouse.

Looking at the clock we later realised we were bang on target to hit Toulouse at 5pm. Rush hour! We considered a pit stop before – maybe an hour before – where we could get some food and sit out the worst of the traffic – or just hammering it and resting again after, but it turned out that DD and DS were calling the shots so we stopped largely in response to screaming and shouting (DD) or endless sobbing (DS) from the back seat. That meant two more stops before Toulouse – one for a quick reset and another for something resembling “dinner”. As it turned out Toulouse at rush hour was nowhere near as horrendous as James remembered, leaving him wondering whether he had accidentally driven through the centre rather than around the outside when he attempted it on his prior UK to France driving adventure about 20 years earlier. Whatever the reason, we were soon past the city and heading into more familiar territority. One more child-induced pitstop later, this time at a visitor centre alongside the Canal du Midi (regrettably closed but noted for future visits!), we were heading towards Limoux. Or were we? The Garmin was starting to do strange things, which meant I was having to keep my eye on the ball and overrule it, causing a bit of a headache for James. At one point we ended up on a dusty, unpaved road through a field of vines. Hmm. From that point on I decided to navigate from the map. We’d fallen prey to the whimsy of the Garmin’s interpretation of “shortest” route on earlier trips to France, accounted for by the fact that many “D” roads in France are listed as 90kmh and while that may be the prescribed speed limit it’s often at least twice the speed it’s either possible or sensible to drive at, and so it was in this case. No, no, no. 30 minutes from our destination there was no way we were following the Garmin into the neighbouring valley, presumably on the basis that a track marked on my map, connecting one hamlet to another, was the most direct and therefore fastest route. No.

Soon we were there. Hurray! And what a welcome! Our friend Marie was the first to come out and greet us – she’d been waiting all day – along with a band of helpers she’d enlisted so that we could quickly unload our car. This was made slightly more interesting thanks to a hole in the road, making it impossible to drive the car up to the door, so the help was greatly appreciated. To top things off Marie brought us food, which was most welcome as it was late and no shops were open; we passed one supermarche on our way and by then it was gone 8pm, which in rural France means everything is closed. Thankfully, Debbie the gite manager had made up the sofa bed so, after eating, it was time to get the smalls to bed and try to hit the sack ourselves. We were pooped. We all slept like logs. We’d made it. There was still alot to do but at least now everyone could relax a little and begin the next part of our adventure.