Saturday, February 17, 2018

Market day

Like most French towns, Quillan has an open-air market where vendors sell fresh food, clothing, books, even tools and furniture. It's one of the country's attractions for us. Quillan's second of the week was today. After Paulita's run and my walk up the hiking path and back, we strolled down to the market. We weren't planning to buy a lot of stuff. We had food for lunch at our apartment and had cancelled dinner reservations  at ''the best'' restaurant in town, a meal likely to cost 75 euro (About $80) or more.

Today's market/patisserie haul. (Wine excluded.)
Then we came upon the vendor selling rotisserie chicken. That would make a fine lunch and we could save the cold cuts we planned to have  for later. 8 euros for the chicken to go along with a can of beans I had bought at the grocery. Then a woman selling cheese called Paulita over to try a sample. It was good and would go well with the chicken. 3 euros. We decided to buy two apples for hiking snacks. Another 1,5 euro. A tomato would go well with the sandwiches we make sometime. Way less than a euro. A Lebanese couple was selling treats they bake. Loved the samples. 2 euros for a variety pack we could take on a hike.

On the way home we stopped at the patisserie for a baguette of Qullianaise, a local specialty bread. On the shelf were an eclair cafe and a "cookie maison"  that needed homes. 4 euros.

The lunch was good and we'll have either leftover chicken or sandwiches for dinner. That's if we have dinner. Two meals a day (including pastries for breakfast) usually is enough for us, especially being in retirement/vacation mode.

We'll try the expensive restaurant tomorrow for lunch.

The lesson here is always bring a bag to the market, even if you don't plan to buy a thing.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Reality check

I had high hopes for the four-bedroom house that was for sale at an affordable price in Quillan. West-facing for afternoon sun, on a quiet plaza and with a balcony off the bedroom. It was perfect -- on the outside.

Inside it was large, having been a former cafe. There were huge wooden beams and new double-glazed windows.

However, every room needed major work. All the walls showed signs of water damage, the floor underlayment was soft and the electrics questionable. The upstairs WC needed a bath/shower unit. The kitchen would have to be gutted and maybe relocated. If we had double the funds in our bank account, and I had 10 fewer years on the age clock, then maybe. But then I wouldn't be retired and in France, Paulita noted.

The experience prompted us to reconsider our original idea to rent for a while. That would give us more time to house hunt, and to be flexible if we decide to return home to the U.S. in December because we miss the kids and family, or that living abroad just doesn't suit us. So far we feel like we're on vacation, and the goal is still to eventually find a home here.

Paulita got on the phone to arrange to see a few apartments. Once again, her French language skills were impressive. We have two showings on Monday before leaving to spend a week in Pezenas, the other village we're considering. One is on a quiet plaza near the village church and the other on a narrow street near the Aude River that flows through town.

Fingers crossed.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Donut test II and Valentine's Day

If you recall, the first French donut I tried, in Aix-en-Provence, didn't impress. So, i tried one at a patisserie in Qullian. I must say, this donut ranked with the best in the U.S. It was a pastry dough with dark chocolate icing. Of course, the dessert wine acsentuated the flavor.

We also spent time with Australian friends Dennis and Jenny, who took us on a tour of the hidden shops and restaurants/bars they frequent. They also showed us homes that were for sale and some details about the places and why they were for sale. The market is suppressed because Brits, a big part of the buyers, were waiting for the pound to strengthen against the euro. There's also the fear of what happens if they leave the European Union and its benefits.

This four-bedroom place was the most expressive with a pricetag around $100,000. We plan to meet with an immoblier (real estate agent) to take a look inside this and other homes.  Word is you immediately offer 10 percent less and negotiate further. Less expensive houses, down to the five figures, are also candidates. We will visit Pezenas to the northeast closer to the Mediterranean, where homes are likely more expensive, so it's good to know Quillan is more affordable. The village has a market twice a week and really comes alive in the spring and summer with bike races, concerts and festivals. We agree that living here, with the mountains and the fast-running Aude River, would would be a healthy lifestyle. A doctor once encouraged me to have 5 ounces of red wine a day for a healthy heart. I tend to overmedicate at times.

It's been a nice Valentine's Day. No flowers, gifts or expensive meals. Just a married couple of 27 years spending the day walking around what might be our future home, looking at potential homes and feeling that we might spend our lives here. As with every day, there's a stop at the patisserie-boulangerie for pastries and a baguette.

Sentier de Capio

I add a rock to the cairn atop Sentier de Capio.

We did another 1,200 hike today, this time up 2,100 foot Sentier de Capio, another mountain that surrounds Quillan. Unlike yesterday’s straight-up climb, Capio’s was a more gentle slope but lots of boulders near the top. Again, we had to decipher the trail blazes that kept changing colors because several trails were using the same paths.
This was the trail we couldn’t finish last year when we got lost in the village of Ginoles. Since then they’ve added more directional signs.

 Quillan seen from our walk up the mountain.
Wikiloc helped keep us on the right paths, even though it disagreed with the signage at times.
Today’s forecast is for rain, possible snow, all day. Our hike might be postponed until tomorrow.
Happy Valentine’s Day. We plan to spend it looking at a potential house in Quillan and lunch at a restaurant recommended to us. Certainly, chocolate and wine will be involved.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The mountains call

Quillan, France surrounded by hills and mountains.
To loosely quote famed naturalist John Muir, "the mountains of Quillan, France, are calling and we must go." We arrived Sunday in the small village located about 60 miles north of Spain. It's nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees, which is why it's one of two locations under consideration for our new home.

Of course, we had to strike out on one of those hills on Monday, 1,200 feet up Pic de Bitrague. It wasn't the highest climb but several sections were extremely steep grades. Our effort was rewarded with some great views. The most amazing was a golden eagle that swooped up from below us not 10 feet away. He made wide circles to return and ride the updraft next to the sheer face. He kept that up until it started to snow, actually tiny beads of hail.

Paulita celebrating at the summit, 2,116 feet above sea level.
There are dozens of hikes of  varying difficulty close to Quillan. Trailheads and paths aren't as well marked as in the U.S. We used an app called wikiloc to follow the trail. Even then the app seemed confused, telling us we were straying but then  immediately saying we were on the right path.

We need to work in a couple of more hikes while we're here this week because in June we're walking sections of the El Camino de Santiago in France, part of The Way, the pilgrimage trails to the cathedral in Galicia in northwestern Spain. True to European hiking culture, we're staying at lodges instead of camping out.

The mountains and its proximity to Spain make Quillan a contender. Next week we'll spend in Pezenas, a larger village farther north and closer to the Med. We hope to pick the winner in April.

Customer service Part II

I neglected to mention another merchant in the previous post. While shopping for a hat and haircut, we had left my computer at a shop in Cognac for repairs. It was stuck in tablet mode so the keyboard didn't work. After a few hours we returned. The technician had tried several fixes but none worked. Because he  wasn't confident of his English to correctly follow some of the prompts, he charged us a whopping zero euros because he couldn't fix it. In the U.S. it would cost $70 just to have someone look at the thing.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Customer service

I was reminded yesterday of the focus French merchants put on service.

The winning hat.
Paulita and I walked by a clothing store in Cognac that sold Scottish sweaters, warm jackets -- and hats, Stetson hats. I half-heartedly mentioned after passing the store on a previous trip that I thought the hats were cool. "Try one on," Paulita said. Inside, the lone worker, probably the owner, was assisting an elderly couple with a pair of pants. We exchanged bonjours but she continued laser focused on the couple over a pair of pants for the gentleman, who was going back and forth about whether to buy the pants. The owner didn't break away to make sure we stayed put. "We just wait our turn," Paulita explained. So we had fun trying on hats. After 10 or so minutes the couple decided and the purchase was made. Other French customers came in.  An American, I didn't expect the same attention the elderly French couple received. I was wrong. She told the new customers bonjour and came over to us. She spent time explaining the hats' properties, checking sizes (I'm a 61, extra large, or as Paulita put it in French to the woman, "He has a very big head.") The owner had me try on several styles. She and Paulita gave their assessments. With a wince, frown or nod the owner made her opinion clear. It came down to two. I let the owner in on the final vote. She and Paulita picked the one you see here. (It has hidden ear flaps!). At the register the owner  demonstrated how  the hat was "crushable" by rolling it up, then fluffing it and forming the creases. She even rushed to hold the door for us when we left.

With a new hat I, of course, needed a hair cut. We saw a shop, Hollywood Coiff. Only 10 euro, or about $12.50. We went inside, passing through the curtain of beads ala 1970s. The other customers were young guys getting side shaves with mops on top and razor edgings. The stylist was a young guy flashing the razor, both electric and straight varieties. I expected blood spatter at the speed he was going. My turn came and wondered if he would be repulsed by gray hair.
Awaiting the outcome. I have no idea why the drape has a clear plastic insert.
After instructions in French by Paulita (Close on the sides and leave a little more on top) he happily went to work. The guy must have three hands because he was armed with a razor, brush and scissors. I left myself and my arteries in his hands and relaxed like I usually do when I'm in the barber chair. Then out came the straight razor. The guy expertly wielded the blade to trim the edges of my beard. At the end it was one of the best cuts I've had. We handed him a 50 euro bill. He had the next customer, obviously an acquaintance at least, go get change. The guy came back with two 20s and a 10. Paulita handed the stylist a 20 euro bill expecting change for a tip. OK, I thought, the guy will feign not having change so he'll take the 20. "No," he said, he didn't have change for that and took the 10 euro. Like most French business people, he didn't expect a tip, even for 100 percent.

I'd like to say you're in the hands of honorable merchants focused on your needs in France. We'll see if that holds true elsewhere.