Editor’s Note: The US celebrated Labor Day yesterday, so there’ll be no regular entry from Bill today. Instead, we’ve pulled out a ‘classic’ from the archives. If you were wondering how Bill ended up writing to you from rural France, this ‘classic’ — first published in the Daily Reckoning on 19 March, 2001 — reveals all…
The winds of March blew up on Saturday. It is a period marked by les giboulées — where the weather changes from one moment to the next, like our daughter Maria’s moods.
Teenage girls are reliable, like stock markets: You can count on them to be adorable one moment and insufferable the next.
Our gardener, Mr. Dumas, was moody too.
‘Farming is finished in France,’ he said, exaggerating for emphasis.
The chart of beef prices resembles the Nasdaq. The wholesale price of beef in France has dropped from €1.60 per kilogram a year ago to less than €1.20 in January.
Now, with a single recorded case of hoof and mouth disease in France, exports of meat products from the European Union have collapsed. The US banned European meat last week. More countries have followed suit since then.
But later in the day, Mr. Dumas was beaming again. It is springtime, after all.
I fixed the cold frames — replacing the glass in the lids — for him. He was happily planting lettuce and contemplating the collapse of Western civilisation when I left him.
I should stop here and warn you, dear reader, today’s letter has little helpful financial advice or insight. I didn’t think about financial matters over the weekend. So I have nothing to say on the subject.
Having nothing to write about…I will write about nothing.
‘The weather was just like this,’ wife Elizabeth reminded us, ‘when we first got here. We just drove up, in rented car…and thought we would move right in, as though we were staying at a Holiday Inn.’
‘We were so naive,’ she went on, describing our arrival at the Château d’Ouzilly. ‘We had no idea of what we were getting into.’
‘The weather was beautiful when we arrived. The sun was shining. The sky was blue. The grass was green. The birds were singing and the jonquils and Japanese redbud were already in bloom… It was gorgeous.
‘And then the weather changed. Then we discovered that the furnace did not work. Of course, neither did the plumbing.’
Elizabeth might have continued: There was no heat, no usable kitchen stove, no bathroom that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to have a heart attack in.
And the fireplaces smoked so badly that you had a choice: You could have warmth…or you could breathe…but not both. And the roof leaked so badly in the first rainstorm, we thought it might have blown off in the night.
‘The roof is OK,’ the previous owner had told us. This was the same person who told us that the furnace ‘worked fine’. It was not so much that he was lying as that his frame of reference was different from ours.
The furnace did work fine, as long as you didn’t mind living in a house with no detectable warmth. That sentiment might carry over to the bathrooms too — they were fine, unless you wanted real plumbing. And the roof was perfectly adequate, unless you wanted one that didn’t leak.
That is what makes living in France — or anywhere overseas, I suppose — so interesting. Things look familiar. But they are never quite what you think.
Even the words often mislead you. French has many words that look for all the world like those of English, yet with very different meanings.
For example, ‘Are there a lot of préservatifs in the food in France?’ asked our new intern, Vanessa. The word sounds like something you might find in food. But préservatifs is the French word for condoms.
What triggered these remembrances of things past was the sight of the moving van at our front door. We were not moving out. Instead, we had rented a van to move some things from the country to our new apartment in Paris.
This apartment is much larger than the last one — so it needs more ‘things’ to fill it up.
Not only do things have to be designed, built and sold, but they also have to be moved around from time to time.
In our case, they had to be carried from various rooms of the château, loaded into the van, driven the 350 kilometres to Paris and then carried up six long flights of stairs to our apartment.
The elevator is so tiny that most of the furniture could not be shoehorned in. It had to be schlepped up the stairs, in the old-fashioned way, just as it would have been 100, 200 or even 500 years ago.
Was there no help that could be had from the ‘Information Economy’? I sought in vain for an IT solution — for some way that the digitalised information that is supposed to transform our lives could make this task easier.
The only improvement information technology offered was in the Avis rental office in Poitiers.
‘Where would you like to return the van?’ asked the clerk.
I gave her our address in Paris, which was followed by a few clicks and clacks on her computer terminal. Thus, we agreed upon an Avis office not too far away — at the École Militaire — and were on our way.
And so, amid the giboulées, the van was loaded with rugs, tables, lamps, chairs and other ‘things’. And taking a couple of the children with me in the cab — Sophia, because she’s the oldest and strongest and could help me unload, and Edward, because he’s the youngest and wanted to ride in the ‘big truck’ — I set off for Paris.
It is a long, slow drive from Poitou to Paris at 110 kilometres per hour. Edward fell asleep within minutes. Sophia plugged in her earphones and opened her schoolbooks. I was left alone.
So my thoughts drifted to experiences of the last six years since we moved to France — and how, little by little, without ever really thinking about it, we became something we never intended.
You’ve heard of the accidental tourist. Somehow, we became accidental immigrants.
But that is how things actually happen in life, dear reader. Things happen that we intend to happen…and try to make happen…and other things just happen.
‘When you set something in motion,’ Elizabeth warned me, ‘you never know exactly where it is going to end up.’
Big stone houses in France are relatively cheap. We had planned to use our French house as a summer residence — a place we could turn into a seminar center and visit with the family in the summer.
But we never imagined the amount of time, money, energy and emotional commitment that was required. Once the investment was made, we didn’t want to leave. While my back was turned, Elizabeth put down roots. I don’t dare try to pull them out.
Ignorance is a fact of life — in France as in America. You never know exactly what people mean. Nor can you know where things will end up once they are set in motion — even in the Information Age.
Your very ignorant correspondent,
For Markets and Money
From the Archives…
Controlled Monetary Chaos
25-8-2014 by Greg Canavan