Ramblings on a Summer Afternoon

I can’t believe that it’s almost August already. Well, that’s a lie, because all I have to do to tell is to look out at all the strangers wandering around the Possum Kingdom. We get so used to our quiet roads that I totally freak out when there are actually other cars heading the same way that I’m going.

During the “normal” time of year, you can be guaranteed that going to do your shopping at 9:30 in the morning means that there will be almost nobody else in the store; same thing if you go at lunchtime. Not so from mid-July to mid-August! Aren’t these people supposed to be on vacation? Why aren’t they sleeping in????

At any rate, even here in our village there are lots of “foreign” cars (that includes French cars from other departments) and we have to be particularly careful when walking Shmoo to not get run over!

The other sure sign of summer is the fact that it is the time of year when all the children in France are redistributed. It seems to me that every child in the country is sent to live with its grandparents for most of the summer! We have all the “regular” village kids disappear and a whole crop of “new” kids suddenly appears. I assume that they’re visiting grandparents and not that there’s some huge, child trafficking ring taking control of the whole country.

Appropos of nothing, I have a few snarky comments for Apple: when I got my iPod I bought this little cassette thing that you plug into the headphone jack then put in the car’s cassette deck to play through the stereo system. It didn’t work, and it was so inexpensive that it would have cost more in postage than I paid for it to send it back, so I threw it into the glove box and forgot about it.

My new mobile phone broadcasts music to the FM radio without an attachment, and works pretty well, although there are sometimes “parasites” on the wavelength depending on where I am. I minimized that by lowering the car antenna, but it’s still not perfect. I suddenly remembered that little cassette thingie so I went out to try it. It works GREAT! The sound is really astonishing; actually better than the sound of CDs when I play them!

So, it looks like it didn’t work with my iPod because it was an iPod and I would have had to spend about 5 times as much to buy the little cassette thingamajig sold by Apple in order to get it to work. It’s really a bit of a scam they have going, isn’t it? You have to use THEIR thing or nothing.

I suppose you can’t have everything, but it would be nice if some things from different companies worked with each other to keep you from having to have assortments of products to handle similar tasks.

Ciao for now.

Randy

I Forgot

I went to the Ikea in Toulouse with my friend Margaret on Wednesday. I haven’t been in a store that big in a long time and I forgot how overwhelming it can be.

I’m always struck by how alike big brand stores like Ikea are from one country to another. I really could have been inside the Ikea in Glendale if the prices had been in dollars rather than in euors. Oh, and in Glendale it would have been air conditioned! Wednesday was hot, about 32 C (90 F) and very, very humid. I’d forgotten about humidity after years of living in the San Fernando Valley, we mostly didn’t have any. Inside the Ikea it was crowded and HOT.

Being surrounded by that much stuff and that many people in that kind of heat was an experience I would like to not repeat for a very long time. I looked around at the things I had in my head that I needed to see, but it was so uncomfortable that my brain wasn’t functioning. I did wind up buying a clothes drying rack that I’d been needing and some paper napkins. How is that for exciting?

I had wanted to visit the Ikea and had never gotten around to it, so now I’ve been there done that. Oh, and I discovered that there is another Ikea phenomenon that is the same here as in the States. I found a couch that would have been perfect for Mom, but I wanted to talk to her first so figured I could just order it online later. Nope; that couch isn’t available online. I hesitate to go back, because if they don’t have it I will have made the trip for nothing. I didn’t mark down all the particulars so I can’t simply call to ask them.  I still remember trying to buy mutiples of something like chairs in L.A. and discovering that they had 2 or 3 when you needed 4, and their having no idea of when, or if, they were getting more of them.

The more things change…

Ciao for now.

Randy

More Customer Service

After my rave about the customer service I received from Nespresso, I had a rather negative experience with Orange to report.

Internationally, telephone companies are NOT known for making things easy for their customers. Anything the “offer” you seems to be done solely to lock you in so that you can’t leave them and look for better service elsewhere.

Now, as it turns out, over the years I’ve tried a lot of different phone companies. I have eventually always gone back to the “main” company (Ma Bell deriviatives in the States, Orange/France Telecom here) because in the end, the so-called alternatives never saved me that much money and were always more complicated when things went wrong.

For mobile service, my choice has always been based on who had the best coverage in the area where I lived. Here in the Possum Kingdom, that has historically been Orange, as they seem to have more cell towers in the areas where I spend the most times. That doesn’t mean I love them, however.

Now, a good reason to remain loyal is generally because most mobile companies give you points every month so that at the end of your contract you can get a snazzy new phone for peanuts. You could do this same thing by just becoming a “new”customer somewhere else, but that has its own set of complications.

I was ready to upgrade, but we had a small problem. We had put our cell service in the name of a company we had set up to attempt to sell real estate. We realized that a: we were not very good at selling real estate, b: we didn’t actually LIKE selling real estate and c: it cost a lot of money to have a company that hadn’t earned a centime in over a year. So, we did the necessary paperwork and closed the company. But we didn’t do anything about changing our mobile service back into a “private” name.

For various, complicated Orange reasons, that meant that all my loyalty points were totally useless, because I couldn’t actually get a new phone without certain papers that no longer existed. Although you are supposedly able to do all kinds of things with your account over the internet, changing the billing name of the service is not one of them. You also can’t do it at your closest France Telecom/Orange office. The ONLY way to do it is to spend a huge amount of time on hold with Customer Disservice, who will then send you a dossier in multiple copies to fill out and send back to them.

Now, something that they seem to love to do here is to get you to agree to a direct debit for your bill. We hate direct debits. If there is ever a problem, it is never in the customer’s favor, and if there is a direct debit, getting it sorted out takes forever and a day. You can, barely, manage to get your dossier taken care of without agreeing to the direct debit, but they don’t make it easy.

Yesterday, we got a piece of paper saying that they needed a cancelled check in my name to complete the dossier. JM didn’t want to send it, because he was convinced this was a sneaky back door way of them getting their direct debit after all. However, he did call, found out that they couldn’t use the cancelled check itself as an authorization (we’re still not clear on the concept of WHY they need it in the first place) and then they asked if I wanted to change phones. Well, yeah, that’s why I went through this whole thing in the first place.

I told them what phone I wanted, which at this stage was practically free. The guy at Orange said it would be here on Wednesday and we hung up. About 20 minutes later I get an email “welcoming” me to my new “security protection” service which would be billed at 6€ per month. Say what? I certainly didn’t agree to any security protection. I asked JM, he hadn’t agreed to it either. I looked up what it covered: it doesn’t cover you dropping your phone and breaking it, it doesn’t cover you losing your phone, it doesn’t cover your dog deciding it’s the world’s best frisbee. Nope, it covers you if someone steals it at gunpoint. Hello? How much chance is there of THAT happening? And, to be honest, if it DID happen, the loss of my cell phone would be the least of my worries.

So, can you cancel that online? Nope. Can you cancel it by phone? Nope. No, you have to print out a document and send it to them within 15 days of ordering the service that you didn’t order in the first place!

Really, Orange. You can do better.

Ciao for now.

Randy

Customer Service in France

I have seen many complaints over the years (and have had a few myself) about customer service. Granted, I’ve had plenty of problems in the U.S., but France hasn’t really been known for “the customer is always right.”

I wrote about buying a new coffeemaker at Darty last month and the problems I had with it. What I didn’t say was that it was a Nespresso machine. Now, I don’t really drink, I don’t go out to dinner much but I have one weakness, and that is my love for coffee. When we first moved here I didn’t want to get someting like a Nespresso, because I was always a maniac for buying the best beans I could, grinding them fresh, making each cup as perfectly as I could, finding the “right” machine, etc.  However, when we bought all of our appliances at Conforama, they threw a Nespresso machine in for free.

I made a lot of coffee with that machine and decided to replace it with one that was a bit more sophisticated and automatically made Lattés and Capucchinos. The particular model that I bought has a separate milk reservoir and a separate milk/hot water pump. You can keep the milk reservoir in the fridge and just attach it to the machine to make your drink. It’s very cool and gadgety!

This morning, it made my first cup, although I had the impression that there was less milk in the latté than usual. When I made my “second breakfast” as all good Hobbits do, nada. No milk came out of the reservoir. I tried cleaning it, but still nothing, so I called Nespresso and a very nice young woman said to take the various bits off the top of the reservoir, soak them and try again using only water in the reservoir. I did all that and not only was there no water coming out, but there were lots of flashing lights, which over the years I’ve learned is a bad sign.

I called again and got a pleasant young man. He walked me through various test procedures and we soon realized that the problem was not the milk reservoir as we had first thought, but was the machine itself!

“Damn!” I thought; “I’m going to have to drive to Darty in Carcassonne and it’s really, really hot today.” But NO! They have a whole system set up! Someone will come tomorrow morning to take my machne and LEAVE ME A REPLACEMENT; they will then send my machine to their specialized repair facility somewhere near Paris and it will be returned to me NEXT FRIDAY! I have been told I do not have to pack it into the original box, as they have a special box that they will send. When I said I could still use my old machine and they didn’t need to send me a replacement, they told me it was more complicated, but that I didn’t have to use the replacement machine if I didn’t want to.

The repairs will be guaranteed for 6 months; although since I have a manufacturer’s guarantee that is good for a year, it’s not really a problem.

I have to say I’m seriously impressed. When my dishwasher blew its motor and I had to wait for warranty service on that, it took over a month all together.

Bravo, Nespresso!

Ciao for now.

Randy

I’m sorry, but people suck

Today being Wednesday, my friend Margaret came over for her weekly French conversation lesson. I was upstairs, but Shmoo was really barking like mad, something he doesn’t do when people are at the door but DOES do when there is a dog around. When I got downstairs, sure enough, there was a dog ALSO sitting at our front door.

I went outside to find not only Margaret, but a truly beautiful puppy. He looked to be a golden colored Belgian Malinois, probably about 6 months old; he was STARVING. I gave him a couple of biscuits and called JM to come down. Margarent had a look at him while I went back in to get some food; he had fleas and ticks.

I did not want to make the same mistake I had made when we found the hunting dog a few months back, and first  I gave Shmoo some of the food I was going to give the puppy so he wouldn’t feel jealous and as if he was being pushed lower down in the pack. Of course, the poor boy wolfed it down. I didn’t want to give him a second can so that he didn’t get sick, figuring I’d let him digest a bit before giving him more.

While he ate, I went down and found a spare collar, then put that on him and attached him outside. Our plan was for me to take him to the vet to get him checked out, then on to the SPCA in Carcassonne later this afternoon so that he could find a new forever home. Li’l fuzz went to sleep for a few minutes and I went inside to get my keys. But suddenly he woke up and went kind of crazy! My guess is he had never been attached to a leash before, or maybe he had been but had had a bad experience. Whatever the reason, he was now completely terrified.

He managed to pull the bench I had him attached to up against the edge of a car, then got himself stuck under the wheel of the car. I couldn’t move the bench enough to loosen the leash and I couldn’t get him to move enough to unhook him. It was pretty scary for a few minutes. Finally, JM managed to unhook the leash and the release of the pressure on the collar calmed the little guy down. But now, he was so afraid that he wouldn’t eat and he wouldn’t move. He was also bleeding from the mouth; my guess is that he had bitten himself in his terror.

I don’t really like to approach a frightened dog; you never know what they are going to do, and since I have no idea if he was vaccinated, I really didn’t want to get bitten and have to get rabies shots. I was at last able to get my hand on his collar at the back of his neck so that I could unhook it, which I did. As soon as he realized he was free, he just took off.

JM was really upset, but I explained that since we couldn’t take the risk of bringing him into the house near Shmoo without getting him checked out first, that I hadn’t had a choice. Leaving him tied up outside was clearly not going to work and we had no place else to put him.

How could anyone just abandon a puppy like that? He looked as if he was a purebred Malinois, not a cross. Why would you take in a dog like that then let him go? He had no collar or tatoo; I have no idea if he was chipped or not since I couldn’t get him to the vet. But, clearly, someone must have decided to go on vacation and since they didn’t know what to do with this dog, they just tossed him out.

I know I will be thinking of this poor little guy for weeks; wondering if he found a home and praying that he is okay.

Ciao for now.

Randy

Frustration

I’ve recently discovered an absolutely TERRIFIC series of mysteries that is sadly not available in English. They’re by a Flemish Belgian author named Pieter Aspe and the hero is Commissionar Van In.  Apparently they’re massive hits in Belgium, with new titles selling well over a million copies (not bad for a country the size of Belgium!).

Of course, the problem is that they’re written in Flemish/Dutch, which means there is a limited audience. They’ve only just started being published in French and so far only 4 of the 28 titles are translated.

I feel so frustrated reading them, because I know that all of you who love detective fiction would love them. They’re a bit like Peter Robinson or Ian Rankin; complex hero, black sense of humor, three dimensional characters. In my opinion they would be bestsellers in the U.S. as well.

I wish I could read Dutch so that I could read all of them without having to wait for them to be translated into French.  If you DO read either Dutch or French, I highly recommend them. I think this is the first new series I’ve enjoyed so much in many, many years.

Ciao for now.

Randy

In response

To the nice comments on Mom’s new found recognition here is the poster for our literary salon, which also uses her painting;

Mom's painting

Mom's painting

This particular painting was done in oils and is a view of the Skhuylkill River in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. We hesitate to tell you how long ago it was, but I believe the painting now qualifies as an antique!

Ciao for now.

Randy

The Good, The Bad and the Annoying

I swear if I hear one more person in the village tell me that “there’s no one here” this year (talking about tourists) I’m going to scream.

It is really vacation season now and as far as I can tell, there are way more people in the area than there were last year, when I already thought it was more crowded than it had been in the past. It’s true that on a weekday afternoon, you don’t necessarily see hordes in the village, but I definitely see way more “strange” faces and have noticed lots of out-of-area cars parked all over the place.

Where I’ve REALLY noticed the increase in visitors though is in the grocery store. I did my big, once or twice a month marketing last Monday in Limoux and it took me forever. I thought it was because I went around 4 pm, which is late for me to shop. The aisles were jam packed with shoppers and their little demon spawn (who all seemed to be pushing demon-spawn-sized shopping carts). The large numbers of shoppers combined with the employees trying to stock the shelves caused massive gridlock in the aisles. I waited close to 40 minutes in a check out line before I could get out of the store.

I needed to go to a big, hypermarket again this morning (unusual 2 weeks in a row) because JM’s trousers decided to secede from the union on Saturday and were unfixable. Knowing that we are not in an area that usually has early birds, I set out at 9 am and arrived in Pamiers before 10. My hope was to get in and out and be home by lunch time. No way, José! I guess vacationers rise earlier than local residents because the Carrefour was packed to the seams! Again, the employees were stocking the shelves and it took forever to find the few things I needed and get out. Of course, as seems to ALWAYS be the case, I wound up buying something that didn’t have the bar code in the computer, so I held up the whole check out line for  10 minutes while someone tried to find the product on the shelves.

I did at last get out of the store, but the parking lot was a bit like DEATH RACE 2000 and I wasn’t sure if Beanie and I would manage to get on the road unscathed. Even the Picard store (terrific frozen food/ice cream specialty store, which is normally pretty darned quiet, was full with people queuing up in the parking lot for spots.

The worst part about all this is the roads though. We get so spoiled with doing errands and not dealing with any traffic. But that changes in July and August. Now, if I had this same amount of traffic in L.A. I would be counting my blessings, but here it is kind of annoying. There are a couple of things that make it particularly irritating. First, are the humongous camping cars (RVs) which take up most of the road and completely block your visibility. They are very difficult to pass because you have limited areas where you can see far enough in the distance to feel safe, and also, there is much more traffic coming in the opposite direction, making it hard to have enough space to build up speed.

But worse than those are the people who drive very slowly in sections where you can’t pass them safely, then, when you get to a spot where you can see AND you have enough room, they speed up to make it IMPOSSIBLE for you to pass! I don’t understand the mindset of anyone who does this; when I have someone behind me who wants to pass me, I try to make it as easy as possible for them to do so, because I want them off of my bumper.

There is good in here though. Because this morning I saw that the SUNFLOWERS are once again starting to bloom! Next to fall, with it’s stunning array of colors, I think that sunflower season is one of the most magical times of year. It practically takes your breath away.

Sunflowers

July DOES have its compensations.

I also need to report on the weekend’s events!

The books signing/tasting at the Library was a big success on Friday night. There were about 20 people there, which is huge for an event like that here, especially at that time of day (5 to 7 pm). All of the food I made disappeared and I didn’t have to worry about leftovers, which is always nice. As usual, the garlic cheese bread was a huge hit. I even sold some copies of the cookbook, thus paying for the ingredients for the goodies. “Baiting”the public is clearly the way to reel them in!

On Saturday the first annual Chalabre Literary Salon took place in the afternoon. Not unsurprisingly there were more authors than readers, but it was a hot, sunny day and it was the first getaway day of the real vacation season. We all hope that next year, with a bit more advance publicity, we can do better.

The prize giving ceremony at Town Hall was a hit as always. Mom was EXTREMELY pleased to be recognized for her painting that was the cover of this years short story collection. It was the first time in her life that she was ever applauded for her art skills and I think it meant more to her than anything that has happened to her in a long time.

Afterward, we all went for dinner at the Cazalette, the snack bar/restaurant at the village camping grounds. A new person has taken over running it this year and we had a delicious meal of tomatoes with mozzarella, lasagna and Tiramisu. The hot temperatures finally dropped as the sun set and it was delightful to sit out on the patio under the trees and talk, eat and have a general good time.

As I said; July DOES have its compensations.

Ciao for now.

Randy

Who knew

That writing about health care and quality of life issues would strike a chord for so many. To all of you who have recently found us, thanks to the cross posting with DailyKos, welcome.

Today is the start of REAL vacation season here in France. With the 14th of July being on Tuesday, it’s not officially a “long weekend,” but I think it’s being treated that way by many. My guess is that traffic leaving the cities will be nightmarish tonight and I have to say I’m delighted to not have to deal with that. One of the things about living in the Possum Kingdom is that we never feel the need to GO somewhere on vacation; we already LIVE in the place where we would want to go!

Chalabre is celebrating the sort of holiday weekend with a bunch of events. I’m kicking things off (in a VERY small way) with a book signing and tasting at our local library tonight. I have made several recipes from my cookbook and I hope that someone shows up to taste them! It will be pretty embarrassing if the only ones there are me, JM and Mom!

Tomorrow there is a used book sale in the morning (along with our usual Saturday market day) and the first Chalabre literary salon kicks off in the afternoon. There will be tables under the covered Halles (market square) where a bunch of regional authors and publishers will be available to sell and sign their books. Other events, including a live story teller will run concurrently.

In the evening prizes for the 4th annual Chalabre short story competition will be given out at the town hall. The top 20 or so stories are collected in a book, and this year the cover was provided by my mother. It’s the first time she has ever had her name or work appear in print, and she is quite thrilled at the idea of it. Following the cocktail party/awards ceremony all the participants are invited to dinner. This year we’re lucky that someone has once again taken over the little restaurant at our local campground. It’s not a fancy spot, but it is quite lovely to sit there in the evening under the shade of the trees and have a nice meal. I’m eager to see what the new person has on offer.

Sunday is the first of the year’s Vide Greniers (village wide yard sale). I am NOT going to take a space this year; I don’t think I’m cut out for the bargaining one has to do in those things. Last year I found it extremely stressful to see people wanting to pay practically nothing for stuff that was already being sold for peanuts. Clearly, this is something I need to leave to others.

On Monday the village has a chance to clean up. Then on Tuesday there are further events, including the Tougnol competition, where anyone interested can enter their homemade  Tougnol (it’s an anise-flavored, regional pastry). I believe there will also be sporting events (as per usual) and fireworks in the evening.

I think we’ll all be ready for a nap after all of that.

Ciao for now.

Randy

Health Care, Sundays and Quality of Life

Although I’m far away I keep an eye on what’s happening with the health care debate in the U.S. I get so annoyed everytime I see someone say that if the U.S. goes to a European model that healthcare will be rationed. Seriously?

Isn’t it rationed now, so that those with good insurance get more than those with lousy or no insurance? I don’t understand how the media can spin this the way that they do. JM told me about a diary entry recently on DailyKos where someone described cutting up their migraine medication into small pieces (and licking the powder from cutting it up) because they couldn’t get enough medication for all their headaches. Another friend of mine in California is considering taking a preventive medication that could have very bad side effects for her, because she has been having a rash of migraines and doesn’t get enough medication in the month to treat them. Is this not rationing?

My friend R has a terrible condition Polymyalgia Rheumatica and her GP wants her to see a Rheumatologist. But R is uninsured and can’t possibly afford to go to a specialist; even if she could, she couldn’t afford the tests or any treatment that would be prescribed. After a year on Prednisone she is being weaned off of it and now just lives with agonizing pain. Is this not rationing? Oh, and R’s GP also wants her to have a mammogram, but as R says, if she pays for it and they FIND something, she can’t afford to do anything about so why bother?

In France, if you’re a woman over 50, every two years you automatically get a letter in the mail from your insurance “caisse,” which tells you that you are due for a mammogram and gives you a list of radiologists in your department where you can call for an appointment. You don’t need a referral from your doctor or a prescription, you just call, make your appointment and go in with your letter and healthcare card.

I went this week and had mine done. Once the films were developed the radiologist came in to examine me and, more importantly for me, to GIVE ME THE RESULTS. That’s right, they didn’t have to be sent to my GP or GYN, they were given directly to me so that I knew that I was okay before I walked out the door. Although he was busy, the radiologist took time to chat with me and to find out a bit of my family history (my maternal grandmother died of breast cancer) and to find out if I did breast self-exams (I do). He was surprised, because apparently I was the first patient of the day that said she did that, and this was 3 in the afternoon!

Still, what struck me about the experience, as most of my medical experiences here do, was the humanity of it all; I wasn’t just a number but a real person to be treated as if I mattered. The radiologist gave me back my previous mammogram films (you get ALL your x-ray films given to you here; they are YOURS not the hospital’s or clinic’s), but took the time to explain that he had kept the most recent set to use as a comparison for the final report that I would get in the mail in a couple of weeks and also reassured me that ALL the films would be sent to me.

When I left, I was given my healthcare card and I did not pay a centime. I will not be billed either, because this is covered for every woman over 50 at 100%. So, is this rationing?

I truly don’t see how things can be worse than they are for a large number of Americans. I certainly never have felt that our care here was rationed in any way; I go to the doctor when I need to, I get the medications I need, I get any tests or referrals that I need. That’s it. No rationing.

I suppose that there MAY be treatments that aren’t approved here that might be approved in the States, but I know that works in both directions. Certainly if someting is approved here, however, the patient can get it if their doctor prescribes it for them. The Social Security/health care system has no say in the matter; it is between the doctor and the patient.

Some things may SEEM like rationing, but that is because, as in the U.S., there are more specialists in big cities (Paris, Toulouse, Marseille, etc.) and if you live in an underserved area you might have to wait longer for certain appointments or travel longer distances to see a provider. But, as I said, that happens in the States as well and doesn’t have anything to do with the insurance system.

Another issue that is in the news here is whether to more widely authorize shops to remain open on Sundays. While some small, local shops in villages such as ours are open, the large, chain stores are not with certain exceptions that are determined by individual prefectures. The legistature is examining this issue (as it does periodically), because President Sarkozy seems to really want to authorize it everywhere, every Sunday.

What has been interesting is the attitudes of the French to the idea. While some people say they would be happy to work Sundays if they were paid double time and it was purely voluntary, many say that Sundays are “sacred,” not in the religious sense, but in the sense that it is important FAMILY time, and should not be abridged in any way.

It points out that quality of life is a big issue here far more than it is in the U.S. People want money, need money, like to have money, but what they really want is to enjoy their lives. The money is a way for that to happen, not the goal in and of itself. I think it is an important cultural difference and one that deserves quite a bit of reflection.

Ciao for now.

Randy