Friday, April 29, 2022

France: D Day + 78 Years

 


Recently on “The Bobby & Aleja Show” ….

We had lived in a vehicle together for years in South America. I’m fond of saying “We were given 2.5 years off for good behavior and allowed out of the vehicle”. We ended up in Bali and lived in a lush villa with servants in a tropical paradise. There was scant little to complain about and things were deliriously good. But eventually, the yearning for exploration becomes more than a mild itch and the mind sabotages tranquility. Inside me, complacency gave way to an urgency for adventure. Some don’t feel the clock ticking. I unfortunately do. We’ve come full circle and are now road hogs again.



Drip Drip Drip

Finding water in the winter in northern Europe to fill your fresh water tank is no easy task. Most public places shut them off so pipes don’t break. We were dirty, needed showers and had dishes to wash. My smart lady figured it out, “You know who always has water? Bomberos!” Of course, she was right. The fire fighters are public servants who are never at a shortage for water. We went to the closest fire department and they filled us up. We later learned that, as odd as this sounds, you can usually find an open spigot at a cemetery. So that’s what we’ve become: water scrounging filthies who accost fire fighters and steal H2O from the dead. I’m so proud of us. 

That is our cassette toilet. The most disgusting design flaw in Europe. When the rules of the road are built around weight you end up with a system that puts you in constant arms length contact with effluent. I love Europe but that is the biggest downfall to this lifestyle. In the USA we have enormous black water tanks on our vehicles and all dumping is done much more hygienically.

Winter In France

In hot weather you never think about your hands. We arrived in the middle of winter. Skin cracks and everything manual hurts the gnarled fingers in such cold. The last time I owned a French vehicle, it was a Jeanneau Sun Legende 41. I used to curse the French and their little hands all the time. I crawled beneath Encore to affect a minor repair to a muffler heat shield that had come partially detached. Working with steel in freezing weather sucks whatever heat remains in your naked digits “tout suite”. It was a busy parking lot and the lady who pulled in next to me was astounded to see a man half under a vehicle, lying still with his hands down his pants trying to get some feeling back in his fingers in order to finish the job. “Sacre Bleu”!


The Colombiana still finds snow and ice to be a novelty


Ahhh – The Cuisine

We went from a very inexpensive country with bad expensive wine and negligible cheese to a very expensive country with the world’s best of both and oddly the prices for both wine and cheese went down. The exhilaration I feel when viewing the cheese and wine selections in the giant Le Clerc grocery stores are on par with the vistas of Mt. Agung from Nusa Penida. 

Every French dinner setting is a still life worthy of being painted. With our friends Miguel and Marine


Raclette is my new favorite. Cheese? Yes Please!

Where do you park?

In France they have what they call Aires. It literally translates as “areas”. They are designated parking spots for motorhomes. Sometimes they are complete with a dumping and filling station, and are free. The French have embraced the “vehicle get away” because it’s a great childhood memory-maker for their kids and I think they really love their kids. Yes, every culture loves their kids but the French are a little special in this area. The nights were quiet and we always felt very safe. There were no loud roaming packs of youth. The French teens were all at home being raised correctly and we were left alone to enjoy their beautiful country. 



Faltering Eyesight

“Live like there’s no tomorrow” is a bit nihilistic for me. It leaves no room for future planning nor hope. I can’t agree with that motto. I can however subscribe to what I believe is the improved phrasing of: “Live every day as if you go blind tomorrow”. This succeeds in creating the same sense of urgency and leaves room for optimism while forcing one to savor the beauty of this spinning marble. We went from one of the world’s best examples of natural beauty to one of the world’s best examples of man-made beauty. The natural bounty of Bali and the architectural delights of France are polar opposites but equally magnificent. Plan your day so as to feed your eyes with splendid visions. Not day dreams – real vistas of splendor. France does not disappoint. 

The only trouble with France is the architecture. It's so distractingly beautiful. You're gonna step in dog poop

The Language

The French are stinking rich with letters and accent marks. They add them like fancy baubles to every word and generously pile them into their sentence construction. They lean hard into the accents though they rarely pronounce the letters. Silent “Ts” & “Xs” hang orphaned at the end of many words. The nasal murmur and soft “zzzzs” that serpentine around each phrase hypnotize and melt the cruelest of hearts. It’s narcotic. No wonder nothing gets done. I have a theory that those nasal murmurings have somehow stimulated a sinus growth spurt and their language is the reason their noses are so large. All the better to breath that delicious cheese.

The masks don't work for the Balinese because they have such diminutive noses and they don't work for the French because they have such gargantuan beaks

Ahhh – The French

The first month we were here. I constantly heard myself saying, “Look how French this is. Look how French he is. Look how French that is.” The second month I heard myself saying “Look how French we are. We are so French!”

We are from the new world, North America and South America, but inside each of us there is a Frenchie trying to rise to the surface. I imagine it’s the same for everyone. Embrace your inner Frenchie! Buy that black turtleneck, wear a beret, eat more cheese, drink more wine, kiss on the cheeks – twice!

The Schengen Zone Shuffle

As non-Europeans we are only allowed 90 days inside the Schengen Zone out of every rolling 180 days (it’s complicated. They make apps due to the complexity). We originally thought we would be dashing to Morocco but even though the borders are open, the ferries aren’t running, so we’ve changed course for our alternative escape plan. The clock won’t stop until we get to Croatia. The formula essentially becomes 88 days in the Schengen Zone (a conglomerate of 26 countries) and 92 days outside of the Schengen Zone (they count the day you exit and the day you enter). Our plans try to weigh the seasons against our allotted 88 days. The dream is to be in the north in the summer and in the south in the winter. It doesn’t always work. I’ve built multiple spreadsheets that run the gambit of our planned 5 years in Europe and in every case, we inadvertently end up in Lithuania in November or Greece in August, or some such other error of planning. This is going to be fun. But for now, let’s focus on the immediate: pour another wine and order the charcutier board. “Que sera sera”. I’m so French now!

Even in the freeze of winter we fell in love with France

Your man on point,

Blacktop Bobby


Thursday, April 7, 2022

France and the European Mission

 


If you had asked the 13-year-old me what I wanted to be I would have demanded: "multi-lingual international gun runner... Obviously". So, by comparison, my current life is a flat boring failure. But that kid was crazy. And in this fragmented shadow of my former vision, I've still managed to eke out some minor escapades in spite of myself. 

The Next Adventure Begins!

I had heard the rumors since childhood. Vague clues & wild myths. The legend said it actually existed and being an amateur archeologist, I had to try. Because of whispers of “a hole in the wall where the men could see it all” .... I went to France.


That’s Not True

As a non-European without residency, there are only a couple ways to buy a vehicle in Europe. I wasn’t comfortable with the Dutch or German schemes of keeping the vehicle in the name of an agent. Only the French system made sense to me. “Aleja – stop studying Italian and switch to French!” She immediately downloaded different software and I hired a law firm to build me a French company that would buy the motorhome. The company owns the vehicle, and I own the company – that is the French work around. 

Going Home

We left Asia and spent 38 days in our home countries. It had been almost 2.5 years since I’d stood on American soil (Aug 2019). It was great to see friends and family but the pandemic made it a little boring. Didn’t matter, I had hundreds of hours of research ahead of me. I composed a list of the acceptable motorhomes and built a logistical nightmare of how to shop for it. 

We aren’t on vacation. We moved to Europe!

I had lived in a motorhome for 4 years on a previous road trip and knew exactly what I wanted to make our lives easier. I became Amazon’s best customer. A man packs 4 backpacks to the point of bursting. They contain clothing, metal detectors, fishing magnets, favorite seasonings, a drone... Everything one needs to move to Europe. The real question is... What miscreant owns 4 backpacks?

Paris

We were reunited in Paris and checked into a hotel for 4 days. And so began our email campaign of writing to dealers and individuals who were selling motorhomes that fit our needs. Google Translate became our best friend as we asked questions, disqualified candidates, set up appointments and mapped our route. 

The Rendezvou with The Paisa - Ooolala

Living In A Van Down By The River

On Jan 23 we vacated the warmth and endless internet of the hotel and moved into a rented van at 2pm. By 3pm we had purchased pillows, sheets, comforters and sim cards. We had a propane heating system for the freezing nights and a way to communicate with the world. That’s how fast the transition can be made. We were ready. But before you get too jealous... This is just the start of the hunt for the big motorhome. This little van is just one transitory tool to get us there. It's 28 degrees at night. It's cold, and we are negotiating in a foreign language. The French bureaucracy, the pinch of the exchange rates, & multiple other factors conspired against us .... This is when we earn it. But isn't it wild...? Standing on the ledge of a new epic multiyear international adventure. Geronimo!

The Rental




The Challenger

We drove to Auxerre (A must see. One of my favs. We went there twice. Put it on your list) to look at a moho (the new lingo for motorhome). After 20 minutes all I could think was what a mistake I had made: “European motorhomes are crap. This thing will be unlivable in 6 months.” We waved goodbye to the cheesy con artist of a salesman and drove to our next appointment dejected and hollow.

Encore

There was another vehicle I wanted to look at in Bengy-Sur-Craon. It was for sale by a private party in the center of farm land France. When we finally pulled into the estate of Patrick and Christiane Policard, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a country home landscape perfected with weeping willows and palms and ancient buildings with heated floors. What dream had we stepped into? 


Before we even looked at the moho we peered through the windows of his workshop on the way to the main abode. Every tool you could imagine placed neatly in its home as the drawn outline proved. A meticulous man lived here. Those other buildings were green houses bursting with flowers and vegetables in the dead of winter. She was a miracle worker as well. We later learned they had moved onto the land in 1972 when it was a complete ruin of hundreds of years earlier and they had made it their life’s work to revive it from the ashes.

We dined together and slept parked in the rental van in their front yard. Could this be the one? We left the next day.



Clement

He spoke excellent English and that was very rare. We conversed with every other person through google translate. It’s an exhaustive process that strains your patience and occasionally fails in spite of multiple efforts. Clement had us interested in a 13-year-old Rapido with low miles that ticked all my boxes. However, it had some mechanical issues. We slept on it and in the morning, he got a breakup text from me as we drove at reckless speed the 4 hours back to the Policards. 


Encore! Close the deal

We texted them enroute and negotiated a slightly better deal. Here were the terms: “I’m going to wire you a bunch of cash and assume that you are a man of your word and actually relinquish the deed of title when it shows up in your account.” This was very atypical of me. Was I about to kill my dream with this cavalier European attitude I had somehow acquired in less than 10 days? They fed us wonderful French delicacies in their dining room again as I initiated the wire. The next morning we left to do “tourist things” with the words: “Envoyez-nous simplement un texto lorsque vous aurez l’argent et nous reviendrons” – “Just text us when you have the cash and we will come back” Who is this guy?

I used to love Chase Bank and now I will hate them forever. They cancelled my wire 4 times and caused us all undue stress and aggravation. None the less, the Policards are righteous people and when the money finally did come through, they called us and we hustled back. 

It was exhilarating to empty the rental van and move all our belongings to our new home. Feb 2 2022. The search was over in exactly 2 weeks. Wow that was fast. 



The sale of the moho had been painful for the Policards. They didn’t want to say goodbye to it but Patrick has an eye condition that has now put an end to his driving. We made the situation even more raw as we left their ex moho in their front yard and drove the rental back to Paris and returned it early. “You want to bring it back today? There is a problem? Well – you know… We cannot refund you for the unused days.” I don’t believe they’ve ever encountered such happy early returnees before. We took a very expensive taxi back to Bengy-Sur-Craon. The Policards – excellent people who we exhausted and pushed to the limit but behaved perfectly and are a shining example of the nation of France. I now love the French.


The Waiting

The French...They start work at 9. The first half hour I imagine they just reload their staplers and tune up their coffees. By 11 they are already thinking about lunch so they won't return calls after 10:59. Lunch is 2 hours, but really, it's 3 hours. Then it's 3pm and they are sleepy. Afternoons are barely productive. You have about 1.5 hours a day you can count on the French to be productive. From 9:30 to 11. That's it.

France is a leisure culture, which I salute. We should prioritize family food and socializing. But it's frustrating when you actually need someone to work in order to get your insurance and the deed to your new car. Here's a picture from the war museum. Still applies today.



Not one French person thought it odd that their postal service would take 10 days for a letter to travel 400 km (250 miles). That is insane in 2022. When we had to start over on one document, I paid the 29 Euros for guaranteed next day delivery. It never showed up. Lost forever. And when we went to the office to inquire…. A shrug and that bass mouth that no one does better than the French. You know what I’m talking about. 



Normandy

Omaha Beach. It was the bloodiest because it was the best defended. The Brits and Canucks got the easier tasks. Even Utah (which was the other American landing) was super easy by comparison. Omaha was an impossible hell. It's astounding anyone survived that day. My buddy Dave Mominee had told me years ago about his uncle who had survived the D Dday landing, and I brushed it off. Then... there in the museum...i saw it! Huge! On the wall - there he was, quoted on the wall of heroes. (it’s such an odd last name that Dave is related to the few Mominees that exist worldwide) I called Dave. We talked about it. Dave had heard all the stories but no one ever sent him that pic before. He didn't know his uncle was on the quote board. Wild man. It made it real. 



That was when humble giants walked the earth. Heroes who were correct and noble with an “ahh shucks” demeanor. Now we are small and grotesque and the shine is tin and not resplendent gold. We've devolved and lost our posture. It's not the same and it probably never will be. 

Go!

Their joke of a mail system in tandem with the French bureaucracy eventually succeeded (or rather - stopped failing) and our Grey Card (title and registration) finally arrived in the mail. We were free to move around the continent!

When I was on the sailboat it was "West, always west". When I was on the Pan-American Road trip it was "South, always south". Now we are in Europe and the mandate is to chase the good weather North in the summer and South in the winter. It isn’t that simple of course because of a little immigration challenge we like to call the Schengen Zone Shuffle. More on that in the next dispatch

These are our dear friends Miguel and Marine. It's their address we used for everything. Their hospitality made it all possible. Thank you again and again. DDDD!


Your man on point,

Blacktop Bobby