Mettre les points sur les i

“Nothing is certain except for death and taxes.” Not even the origin of this quote, variously attributed to Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain. It holds truer than ever in times of pandemic and the property market.

You have to enjoy dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s to be a notary. Les Notaires de France are the legal eagles responsible for officializing over all property transactions. We are currently going through this for the fourth time. Yet, like the pain of childbirth, each time I forgot what a long and drawn-out process it is.

When you sell a house in France, the buyer must also pay what are called, somewhat erroneously, notary fees. Only a small piece of the pie actually goes to the notary; most of it is paid to the tax man — the local, departmental and federal governments. These transaction fees and taxes are added to the purchase price, increasing it by 7%.

The seller, in our case us, pays the real estate agency fees. This can take 5-7% off the net purchase price. For this reason we chose not to sell through an agency but to handle the marketing and selling ourselves. Thus no fees. Given that we only built our house less than ten year ago, and took out a substantial loan to finance our project, we wanted to make the most of our sale.

The sales process takes place in multiple steps:

  1. Find a buyer (during lockdown, extra fun!)
  2. Agree on a price (significantly less than the asking in the French market)
  3. Contact the notary and arrange an appointment (thankfully they getting back to normal and we didn’t have to wait)
  4. Gather many documents (if lucky) or search/pay to obtain lost documents
  5. Sign the ‘compromis de vente’ or sales contract
  6. Wait 10 days in case the buyers change their minds
  7. Wait 2 months for the local authorities to hem and haw, just in case they might want to appropriate the property
  8. Sign over the property deed

If all goes well, we will be done by early September.

I have decided not to wait until then to break out the bubbles but to celebrate each step along the way. Life is too short, and things just take too long. Besides, champagne flows pretty freely around here. Vive la France!

Have you ever dealt with a notary or had a painful property experience?

L’argent du beurre

I hated butter when I was kid. Not so much the taste but the greasy, slimy nature of it. It seems this was an acquired dislike. One of my first memories, which is probably only a memory of a story I was later told, was of reaching my hand into the butter dish and having it slapped away. So began my aversion.

Later in life the sentiment dissipated as I discovered the flavour and richness that butter brings. At first I could only enjoy it as a topping on popcorn, when cooked into something or as a scant scraping on toast. Unfortunately for my cholesterol count, I now like a bit of butter on warm bread (very un-French, other than at breakfast) and add liberal doses of le beurre to everything from sauces to omelettes to veg.

I must admit we’re rather spoiled for butter around here. French butter is heralded by many for its superior quality. The only other butter which might possibly be better is Swiss. Just think of all those alpine pastures with the cows grazing on grass.

There are three kinds of beurre: doux (sweet), demi-sel (semi-salted) and salé (salted). There is even the kind with little salt crystals for those who enjoy the taste of salt explosions. The best butters are churned (‘barrate’) to separate out the buttermilk (‘babeurre’).

There is a French expression which seems particularly apt to me these days: “On ne peut pas avoir le beurre et l’argent du beurre.” Literally this means that you cannot have both the butter and the money you make from selling it. Which essentially translates to the English expression, “You can’t have your cake and it eat it too.” Or have it both ways.

Looking for a new place to live means confronting this reality head on. You can downsize and have the same space. You can’t live in or near a town without having some noise. You can’t enjoy a mountain view without having to climb some hills. You can’t enjoy the advantages of good transit connections without have a train line or highway nearby.

When we decided to sell our house and move to something smaller on the Swiss side, we knew we wouldn’t have everything we wanted. So we set a few guidelines for our search. I was prepared to compromise on many things but not on a certain quantity and quality of space.

It has been a bit of a journey. Along the way I learned a few things, or re-learned them:

1. Shit happens. COVID-19 happened. The best-laid plans are nothing in the face of a pandemic.

2. You must stay true to what you want but keep your mind open to unexpected opportunities, go off the path and explore a little.

3. Pictures and online visits are all very well for a first impression but you have to actually see a space to get a feel of whether it’s right for you.

4. Things will eventually fall into place.

And so they have. Against all odds, only one month after lockdown was lifted in France, it seems we have found buyers for our house, and a new place to live in Switzerland. Neither of which quite fit the initial ideas of what we thought. But both feel right. More on our new place soon. I’m too superstitious to share details before we have signed on the dotted line.

In the meantime, there will be butter. I will definitely not be selling but enjoying it.

How do you like your butter — sweet, demi-sel or not at all?

Inégalité

This was going to be another post about my life between France and Switzerland, and the latest developments in our new home search. But then things in the world went sour and I just don’t have the heart for it right now. To talk about such things as the world explodes with injustice seems a little, well, tone-deaf.

For most of my life I rejected the idea of privilege. Even as a kid, I remember being told I was fortunate. To think of all the starving children in Africa when I wouldn’t, couldn’t finish what was on my plate. To be grateful for having two parents, a stay-at-home mom and a father who left for work each morning carrying a briefcase. For being able of body and sound of mind.

I rejected outright the guilt that came from this accident of birth, which struck me as entirely unfair. I hadn’t asked for any of it. To be born in Canada to parents who had enough to feed us and have a nice home. Appearances can be deceiving, I would say. My so-called lucky white middle-class family struggled in different ways. Besides, there were so many other people who had so much more.

I never accepted being identified by my race, gender or whatever other labels people threw at me. Catholic. Blonde. North American. Single or married. You don’t know me, who I am or what I think, I raged, whenever I felt seen through such filters. Don’t judge me by your standards!

In return, I did my best to do the same, to see the person before the skin. No racist or gender stereotypes for me. Which was, of course, delusional.

The first time I heard the words ‘Black lives matter’, my reaction was true to form: “What? Why only Black lives? All lives matter!”

Many years ago, I lived in a well-to-do suburb and a bastion of white privilege outside Minneapolis. In Edina, people of colour were rare birds indeed. But in the twin cities (Minneapolis-St.Paul) the racial divide was extremely evident. You could draw a line between the rich and poor, white and black parts of town.

Coming from Toronto, a city that defines itself on diversity and what we then called the ‘cultural mosaic’ (as compared to the American ‘melting pot’), the reality of segregation, of outright racism, was shocking. I knew it was wrong but I didn’t know what to do about it. They were formative years for me, in my early to mid-teens, and a time of huge social unrest in the US. I remember the Kent State shootings as the first time my eyes were opened to the terrifying power of the state and how it could be turned on its citizens.

Now I see ‘Black Lives Matter’ differently. All lives can’t matter until Black lives do. White privilege is real. Acknowledging these truths doesn’t make us any less valuable as human beings. On the contrary.

I’m not sure exactly when the shift happened. It has certainly been gradual. Perhaps my eyes started to open while watching a Netflix series called ‘Dear White People’ that portrays a group of black students at an elite, mostly white university. Recent events in the US, culminating in last week’s murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, made me realize that the issue of race, which I had naïvely assumed to be a thing of the past, is still very real.

And not just in the US.

In Paris yesterday, demonstrations turned violent when 20,000 people gathered to protest against racism and police violence.

“Demonstrators voiced their support for the Black Lives Matter protests and demanded justice for Adama Traoré, a young black man who, like Floyd, died while in police custody in the Paris suburbs in 2016.”

Racism is different here in France, but it is still racism.

Inégalité — inequality — is real. So are poverty and hunger, as the long lines for aid from our food banks attest.

It’s okay to feel guilty. It’s okay to feel outrage. It’s not okay to act like it is normal or acceptable.

How are you feeling?

Antihéros

You may have heard the name of Professor Didier Raoult in the media of late. He is an avid proponent of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19.

What you probably don’t know about the eminent Dr. Raoult is that he epitomizes the French love of the anti-hero: a renegade who doesn’t pander to authority, a medical doctor, a microbiologist and an eminent researcher who is among the most respected in his field. Raoult is also, most importantly to the French, a free thinker and forthright speaker who says his truth without compromise. That truth has been rather uncomfortable for many people over the past months of pandemic. It has divided the country along with the international scientific community.

The fact that he wears his hair long, collects art and generally comes across as an ageing ‘baba cool’ (the French expression for hippie), only adds to his charm. Along with the fact that he was born in Africa and hails from Marseille, a city known for being loved or hated in equal measure.

I had every reason to dislike him. Already early in the confinement the media were hinting that Raoult’s claims for a cure for COVID-19 were overstated, that there was little evidence to support his approach and that — most dubious of all — President Trump was touting it as a miracle cure. I was sceptical at best about the fellow. He sounded like what I hate most: a jumped-up counter-culture figure with a huge ego.

“I’m against information before knowledge. Our work is to obtain knowledge.”

Then I saw him being interviewed. In French. And my preconceived dislike evaporated. Didier Raoult speaks with surprising humanity and humility, advances arguments that are sound and does it all while expressing equal doses of conviction and reasonable doubt. Here is a thinker, a doer and someone who embraces his role as a clinician. That is, a doctor having direct contact with patients rather than being involved with theoretical or laboratory studies.

This is how he has defended his refusal to conduct a formal clinical trial during a pandemic. I must admit I sympathize with this view. It seems rather harsh to ask people who are diagnosed with a life-threatening viral disease to accept the risk of being randomized on a placebo rather than receiving the drug that could save their lives. Of course such trials are essential to medical science and the very foundation of our approach to safely prescribing drugs. But Raoult’s point is this: you cannot compare chloroquine, a drug that has been through clinical approval and prescribed as a treatment for multiple diseases for many years, to an as-yet unapproved drug that has yet to be found safe in humans.

All of which has led to Professor Raoult (‘professor’ in French trumps ‘doctor’ as a title) being elevated to the level of (anti)hero amongst the French populace. His ideas feed into the strongly held belief that Big Pharma is evil, the government cannot be trusted to tell the truth and that good, old-fashioned remedies will cure most ills.

The fact that recent studies have tended not to support the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 has further divided opinion. Just this week, the government announced it would no longer authorize the prescription of the drug to treat coronavirus. But Raoult’s supporters believe him when he explains that the so-called studies are not randomized trials but observational, that dosing is an issue and that his protocol, used in his hospital, of treating patients in the early stages of the disease (and not when they have already developed a serious case), with hydroxychloroquine, and azithromycin, along with zinc, works.

Here’s an interview (from mid-April). Long, and not great quality but worth a watch if you’re interested. Note: he speaks English like a Frenchman!

Time will tell if he is right. In the meantime, if you were to ask the average French person on the street who they would trust to treat them if they were to catch the virus, you know the answer.

Who would you trust?

Se projeter

Love the view and feel of this place but it is too close to a major highway

When you’re looking for a place to live, there is really only one question: Can you see yourself there? This is what the French call ‘se projeter’ — literally, to project or imagine yourself living somewhere.

I am becoming a bit of an expert on imagining my life in different places. We’ve been visiting properties to buy or rent now for months — mostly online lately due to coronavirus. But now visits have started up again and we’re trying to get out and see places live and in person.

One thing I’ve learned is that there is no technology — virtual reality, 3-D photos or video — that can substitute for the feel of a place. Do you feel a kind of buzz as you enter? Could this be the place in which the next chapter of your life will unfold? Can you imagine getting up each morning and seeing that view?

Terrasse mit Traumaussicht
I could live with this view but the place is just too small.

Oddly, it is not necessarily the nicest or most spectacular places in which I can see myself living. It seems to be a combination of privacy, attractive space and surroundings that do it for me. Basically I’m attracted to anything with greenery around it: a treetops or garden apartment, light-filled rooms but not a full-on southwest exposure. While husband wants an open space with tons of light and most of all a spectacular view, I want to feel protected by walls and not overly exposed.

There are some things I simply cannot do: certain architecture is a non-starter (non-descript is okay but not in-your-face ugly, whether in colour or style), the sloped ceilings of an attic apartment, anything too boxy or institutional-feeling, a terrace overlooking a road or even a parking lot.

Traumhafte See- und Bergsicht
This little garden would be perfect for us but the apartment is overpriced and needs work.

Also, I don’t want to feel too isolated. We’ve set a 15-minute maximum on the time it should take to walk to a village, café or shop. Ideally I’d like to be within 5 minutes and not have it involve a massive slope. But this is a tough ask in Switzerland, especially as we also want peace and quiet, as well as a view.

I’m working hard on ‘projecting myself’ into my new life. Where we see ourselves next year, in five years, in retirement? City or country or somewhere in between? I need to see water, he needs to see mountains. I want proximity to a city with bookshops and train connections. He wants to be within 30 minutes of CrossFit.

You learn to be very careful of places that look too staged.

The biggest challenge at the moment is the sluggish property market. We haven’t sold our house in France yet (quelle surprise, given the past two months of lockdown) and there is little available on the Swiss side. Things are gradually picking up but the challenge remains: to sell in a buyer’s market (France) and buy in a seller’s market (Switzerland).

So we’ve decided to rent, at least for now. Which is probably more sensible anyway until we decide where we want to be long-term. Now we have to find a place to rent that meets all our criteria and is still affordable. And also accepts pets.

Where do you see yourself — today or tomorrow?