Archives for January 2014

Northern Ireland: Tour of the Causeway Coastal Route and Glens

Norman castle at Carrickfergus

Norman castle at Carrickfergus

We dedicated one day in Northern Ireland to a bus tour of the Causeway Coastal Route and Glens, including a visit to Carrickfergus Castle, a drive along the Nine Glens of Antrim, a walk along the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, lunch at The Old Bushmill’s Distillery, a visit to the World Heritage Site known as Giant’s Causeway, and an end of the day photo op at the Dunluce Castle.

Carrickfergus Castle was built by the Normans in 1177 and remains a well preserved example of Norman architecture in Ireland. It is located 11 miles north of Belfast along the coastal route and is open for public tours. Our tour focused solely on getting some photos outside. The castle was captured by the Protestant King William of Orange (King William III of England), the first step in his eventual defeat of Catholic King James II in the Battle of the Boyne. Louis XIV of France had supported King James in the battle. Interestingly, the Pope (Alexander VIII) supported the Protestants as part of an alliance (The League of Augsberg), a multi-national alliance opposing the aggression of Louis XIV in Europe. The victory for the Protestants assured continued Protestant and English control of Ireland. The Battle is still celebrated as a holiday called “The Twelfth” since the battle was won on July 12, 1690. Due to a change in the calendar, it is celebrated on July 23rd. The holiday sometimes inflames the continuing conflict between Royalists and Republicans.

Other facts about Carrickfergus: A ship moored nearby Carrickfergus was once attacked by John Paul Jones. Also, US President Andrew Jackson’s father was born in 1738 in the village nearby the castle.

Up the road from Carrickfergus is the town of Larne and a significant industrial area that includes the Caterpillar Tractor headquarters for Northern Ireland, where they are a major employer. My interest in Caterpillar is because I grew up in Peoria, Illinois, which is their world headquarters and my dad worked there as an engineer for over 30 years.

Another Glen of Antrim

One of the Nine Glens of Antrim

The road then travels from Larne along the coast line between the sea and high cliffs formed from volcanic lava flows 60 million years ago. It took us through nine Glens, steep green valleys that run from the highlands to the sea. The Glens were formed by glaciers in the last ice age , and each coveys a particular story from Irish Mythology.

Later along the road we stopped at the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, which was first built by salmon fishermen many years ago to take advantage of the heavy salmon migration between the small island of Carrick-a-Rede and the shore. Walking 90 feet above the heavy winter waves along the swaying 60 foot span made for an exciting experience. Hang on to your hat and don’t drop the camera!

Brenda at the rope bridge

Brenda at the rope bridge

Then it was on to lunch at the old Bushmill’s Irish Whiskey Plant. They sell some blends there that one cannot buy anywhere else. We had lunch with a girl, perhaps 18, from the Melbourne Australia area where Brenda lived in the ’70s. She was taking a year off to travel around the world by herself, and she had already been across the entire US.

The last major attraction of the day was a visit to Giant’s Causeway. The causeway consists of an extraordinary formation of crystals of basalt rock, thousands of colums of which protrude into the sea along the coast. Legend has it that an Irish giant, Finn McCool, built the causeway by placing these rocks across the water to nearby Scotland, only to flee back home after he discovered an even larger giant living there. The Scottish giant crossed the causeway in pursuit of Finn, but Finn’s clever wife disguised Finn as a baby before inviting the Scottish giant into their home. When the huge Scottish giant saw how large the baby was, he was terrified at the thought of how large the baby’s Irish father must be. He fled back to Scotland, destroying the causeway along the way. All that remains today are the rocks protruding out into the water from Ireland.

Basalt crystals at Giant's Causeway

Basalt crystals at Giant’s Causeway

A museum at the site shows how the action of glaciers and volcanic rock combined to form the unusual crystal formations. We were not as amazed as some perhaps, since we have about ten of the basalt crystal formations as landscaping features in our yard in Poulsbo. They are common in Eastern Washington. Still, Giant’s Causeway was truly amazing!

On our way home we stopped by Dunluce Castle, another old Norman castle, part of which has fallen into the sea. It provided an ancient backdrop to the setting sun at the end of the day.

See a photo tour here.

Northern Ireland: Crumlin Road Jail in Belfast

Looking into a cell block at the Crumlin Road Jail Belfast

Looking into a cell block at the Crumlin Road Jail Belfast

The Belfast Visitor’s Center advised us to take the tour of Crumlin Road Jail (called Crumlin Road Gaol), so this was the first place we visited when we came to town. The jail was built in 1846 during the Victorian era and was home to more than 25,000 prisoners before it closed in the 1996.

The Victorian design was intended to house about 500 prisoners (one to a cell in isolation) , but during the turbulent years of “The Troubles”, prison population grew to about 1500. We saw all the basic elements of prison life. First we saw where the prisoners were received and how they were washed, photographed, and processed. They gave up all their personal effects and lived in isolation, the method then favored by the British to best ensure rehabilitation. Our guide showed us the rooms and procedures used to control prisoners at all times when they were outside their cells. There were women guards for women prisoners and male guards for male prisoners. The prison design was meant to convince prisoners that someone was watching them at all times. We marched into the tunnel that led under the road to the courthouse (now burned down), where the prisoners were taken to stand trial. The Warden’s office was the only room with carpet, so going to see the warden was being “called on the carpet”.

At first the policy for political prisoners was to segregate Republican and Unionist prisoners in different prison wings. In later years the policy was changed to integrate them. After this policy change, political prisoners avoided potentially volatile confrontations by voluntarily segregating themselves to maintain order. Over its history the prison witnessed riots, escapes, births, deaths, hunger strikes, and marriages.

We saw the cell for condemned prisoners. There were 17 executions over the life of the prison, the last of which was in the ’60s. Condemned prisoners did not know that the hanging chamber was only a few feet from their cell, and they weren’t told the date of their execution until the night before it was to occur. They were guarded at all times to prevent suicide. Guards socialized with them and became friends. The English prison system had very scientific procedures to ensure the most humane death possible by hanging. For instance the length of the rope and fall from the scaffold were precisely calculated using the condemned’s height and weight. Executed prisoners were confirmed to be dead in the chamber beneath the scaffold and then placed in wooden coffins and buried in unmarked graves on the site of the prison.

We saw the execution chamber and the room where deaths were verified. It was also the room where other prisoners were punished by flogging.

Visiting the prison provided us with some interesting background about life in Belfast, grim as it might seem. We missed a further attraction – the paranormal tours at night, where ex-inmates show why the jail is one of the most haunted sites in Belfast.

See a photo tour of the Crumlin Road Jail.

Visit to Northern Ireland

Culloden Hotel and Spa in Belfast

Culloden Hotel and Spa in Belfast

Between January 17th and 22nd we traveled to Belfast, Northern Ireland. This might seem an odd choice for our first trip outside France considering there are so many other destinations to choose from. The reasoning went like this: In late October Brenda purchased 2 tickets to see Van Morrison on January 21st at the Hastings Culloden Estate and Spa in Belfast. Van Morrison is from Belfast and now lives there. When we got married we had the band learn Van Morrison’s song “Someone Like You“. Our 25th anniversary is coming soon. We were going to visit Belfast.

Belfast became a city in 1888, but the site has been inhabited for 5,000 years. According to Wikipedia, its population is 286,000 and it has a metropolitan area population of about 500,000. It is the 14th largest city in Great Britain. Though there were castles in the area dating from the 13th century, Belfast became settled as a community in the 17th century by English and Scottish migrants. Thus the native Irish Catholic inhabitants became a minority as a large Protestant immigrant population arrived in the north of Ireland.

Ruins of the Norman's Dunluce Castle from the 14th century

Ruins of the Norman’s Dunluce Castle from the 14th century

Ireland was invaded by the Normans in the 12th century, and the English extended their rule to whole island in 1690, establishing Protestent English rule over a disadvantaged Irish Catholic community and some other Protestant dissenters. Ireland became part of the United Kingdom in 1801. Early in the 20th century, there was a war of independence, and the Irish Free State was formed in 1920.

When the Irish Free State was formed and Ireland was divided into a number of partitions, the partition of Northern Ireland, having a substantial Protestant migrant population loyal to the government of England, agreed by vote of its parliament not to join the Irish Free State but instead to remain part of Great Britain. A substantial minority, mainly of Catholics, had advocated for Northern Ireland to join the Irish Free State.

Tension between the Irish Catholics and ancestors of the migrant English and Scottish Protestants boiled over in the a period of civil conflict between 1969 and 1998 known as “The Troubles”.

Titanic Museum in Belfast

Titanic Museum in Belfast

Fortunately “The Troubles” have receded, replaced by a period of political negotiation instead of terrorist warfare. The city of Belfast is recovering and has a bustling downtown business district with numerous fine hotels and restaurants. We found our trip to be a fun filled getaway.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Belfast became a hub of industrial activity. It was the world’s largest producer of linen and rope, and the world’s largest shipbuilder. It was also a center for cutting edge engineering and other manufacturing. It was the largest city in Ireland for a brief period late in the 19th Century. Among other notable accomplishments, in 1912 workers in Belfast built the world’s largest ship, the Titanic. An excellent museum in Belfast today commemorates that accomplishment as well as the details of Titanic’s ill fated maiden voyage.

Belfast is a pretty fascinating city even in the winter rain and cold. We decided to spend 4 days at the Ten Square Hotel located downtown across from City Hall and then spend the last night at the Culloden Estate where Van Morrison performed.  We did have a clear day when we took a 9 hour bus tour to the Causeway Coastal Route. There we walked across the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge, ate lunch at Bushmill’s Distillery, and walked along the beach at The Giants Causeway, a UNESCO Heritage site of unusual basalt rock columns. I took a few distant photos of Dunluce Castle, a 14th century structure atop a steep cliffside.

Brenda with her trusty umbrella

Brenda with her trusty umbrella

The 10 Square Hotel right in Belfast was a great choice as the location is perfect for walking around the city. The room was very comfortable though all the decor is a dark wood and carpeting and heavy drapes make it a wee bit (yes they actually say that phrase there quite often) oppressive. The hotel restaurant had very good food so we ate there several times. The bar on the week end is a madhouse of heavy drinking young and old revelers. We were glad that we were on the 3rd floor with a conference room on one of the floors in between-the noise did not travel up to our room! The hotel staff left a very nice Happy Anniversary plate of chocolates for us. Thank you! They have work out facilities but not on the premises so we did not utilize them. We walked miles around the city with our umbrellas.

There is helpful signage all about the town. The people are friendly and very proud of their city. We were fascinated by the Crumlin Road jail tour. The City Hall is worth visiting. They have a great coffee/lunch shop and information boards with interviews of Belfast folks who lived through “The Troubles”. The Visitors Bureau very close to our hotel is newly remodeled and has beautiful display cases, friendly staff, tons of brochures, suggestions for things to do. Because of the Visitor Bureau recommendation we were able to go on a walking tour on Sunday with a Republican tour guide who shared not only his political views and knowledge but some excellent Guiness in a local pub.

Van Morrison at the Culloden Estate in Belfast

We took the train from Belfast out to the Culloden. That might have been fun had it not been pouring rain and so windy that our umbrellas turned inside out. Not only is it a bit of a walk from the 10 Square to the train station, there is a quite an uphill jaunt from the train to the Culloden. Better to have taken a taxi from the 10 Square! But hey we got to experience the train and it only cost 6 GBP.

The Culloden Estate and Spa is magnificent. Our room was divine! And the spa there is marvelous. Brenda swam in their fabulous round sky domed pool and ate breakfast poolside the last morning. Van Morrison’s performance was excellent. For 30 years Brenda had wanted to see him live. He did not disappoint-performed non stop song after song. The dinner prior to the performance was delicious, smoked salmon entree, a specially roasted beef in wine sauce with vegetables and a pudding with caramel sauce. We enjoyed talking to the other guests at our table, which was positioned right up front so we could really see Van, his daughter Shana (who did a few numbers on her own and sang back up for Van), and the band. The Culloden staff also gave us a beautiful chocolate plate with Happy Anniversary written on it. We walked about the manicured grounds the last day before taking a cab to the airport (only 10 minutes away.)

Here is a photo tour of the city, the Titanic Tour, and the Concert. We’ll separately post articles and photos about the Causeway Tour, Jail Tour, and “The Troubles”.

Getting a Carte de Séjour (Residence Permit)

From the back of the line at the Prefecture de Police

From the back of the line at the Prefecture de Police

Before I relate our process of obtaining a residence permit, a note of caution: Information we found on other Internet blogs was not always reliable and up to date. You will need to do your own research. The requirements change often. There have been major changes to the Préfecture de Police Web site even since we began our process. This post should in no way be interpreted as legal advice.

Last week we finally received from the Préfecture de Police permission to remain in France until April. The Préfecture is the agency that implements French government policies for non-citizens visiting or working in France for periods beyond one year. When we return to the Préfecture in April, they will review all of the documents and hopefully issue a resident card allowing us to remain an additional year in France.

In late October, about 3 months before the expiration of our visa, I checked the web site for the Préfecture de Police. How I wish I had checked this earlier! Right away I knew we were in trouble; the first requirement for visitors was to visit the Préfecture 4 to 5 months prior to expiration of their visa.

I relied on the information from our visa issued by the French Office of Immigration and Integration (OFII). We’ve already related the story of our visit to OFII. This visa gave us a resident permit for our first year in France. The application contained the following information about renewing our residence permit:

“If you wish to renew your residence permit you must, within the last two months before your visa expires, go to the relevant local authorities of your place of residence (“Préfecture”) and apply for a resident permit. You will be given the necessary forms and the list of requirements, which can vary according to your stay. Failing to do so will result in your having to return to your last country of residency to request a new visa.”

The Préfecture Web site provided a list of items that applicants need to present for their first renewal. It included some items not required by OFII, such as certified copies of birth certificates with date of issue within the past 3 months. Other items were similar to what we had presented for our original visa. About the same time, I found an article on the blog Paris Missives letting us know that obtaining a residence permit was no walk in the park. There was a form on the Préfecture Web site to request an appointment to renew the residence permit, but I could not figure out what number on my long term visa would allow me to sign up. The numbers in the online form appeared to correspond only to numbers on the residence permit card.

Knowing we were running out of time and still not having an official appointment, on November 1st Brenda and I went to the Préfecture de Police on Rue Truffaut, the designated place for people living in our part of Paris. We took with us everything on the checklist that we could pull together, and I hastily ordered our birth certificates by overnight mail from the US.

This first visit was a complete failure. We arrived early in the afternoon and found two long lines. We understood the line on the right was for first time renewals, and the line on the left was for people who were renewing a subsequent time. We waited outside, standing in a crowd in sub 40 degree weather for 5 hours. The line on the left moved quickly along, but our line moved hardly at all. Just as we neared the front, an administrator appeared and told everyone to go home. No more appointments that day. At least 100 angry people, trying to get the feeling back in their legs, trudged off.

Later we found out that traffic that day was especially heavy because people who normally would have been at work were off for some school holidays. The next week we received our birth certificates. Still hoping to get in the door to start the approval process, we went back to the Préfecture at 8:30 am on November 6th. This time we got inside, received a number, and within 2 hours were called to the front desk. The administrator spoke rapidly in French (too rapidly for us to understand what she said) as she looked at our paperwork. She handed our paperwork back, told us to leave and to call the phone number on the checklist to make an appointment. Since appointments were running about 5 months out (April 2014), and our visas were to expire in January, we did not understand why the Préfecture would not see us. We returned home to look for some bourbon and professional help.

We searched the Internet and found a company in Nice called “Mon Ami Andy”. They help clients obtain residence permits. I filled out their online form. Within a day I received a response from Jennifer Denison, who specializes in helping with visa/immigration issues. She answered my list of questions regarding our circumstances and explained how to obtain items required by the checklist. Her being in the south of France was not a problem. She met with us in our Paris apartment when she was in town early in December. Below are some requirements and answers for questions:

Is this our first renewal?

Our visa authorized residence for our first year in France. We were confused about whether we were now applying for our first residence permit or a renewal because the laws changed 2 years ago. Before the change one would apply for a separate residence permit at the Préfecture within 3 months of being in France. Now the first year of residence in France is authorized by the visa approval by OFII. Older websites discussing residence permits were not up to date with this change. With current rules, because one holds only a visa and not a separate residence card, one is classified as making his/her first request to the Préfecture.

Getting an appointment at the Préfecture

I hired “Mon Ami Andy” to obtain the appointment for us. For nearly a week they had no success contacting the Préfecture. Finally on a Monday they succeeded. Since July 2013 the Préfecture has a cap on how many appointments they can give out per week, making it easier to manage the workload for their employees. The previous week all of the spaces had been filled by 10 am on Tuesday, so for the rest of the week the switchboard was off! The Préfecture confirmed the appointment by sending us a “convocation” inviting us to individual appointments on April 14th. Since our visas expire near the end of January, we still had to have temporary permission to remain in France. Back to the Préfecture!

Get first Recepissé

With our letters of convocation, passports and a proof of address (a bill in each of our names), we went to the commissariat 19 rue Truffeau at 8:30 am to request a Recepissé. This time we got to stand in the faster moving line on the left. As a precaution recommended by “Mon Ami Andy”, we took additional paperwork – apartment lease and receipts, bank statements, and translated birth certificates and marriage license, but these were not required. As Jennifer predicted, we were issued the Recepissé without any problems. It allows us to stay in France legally until our meeting in April. We are also permitted to enter and exit France freely.

Note on what documents were needed to prove residence

Our landlord kept the utilities in her name so we did not have a utility bill to prove we live at our address in Paris. “Mon Ami Andy” recommended that we use a cell phone bill in each of our names, copy of the apartment lease with the most recent 3 months of rent receipts, and bank statements in both our names as a backup. Both our cell phone accounts were in my name. It took us more than a month to complete the paperwork so that our cell provider Orange could change one of the accounts into Brenda’s name. An Orange phone cannot list more than one person on the account.

Now we are looking forward to our meeting in April. We have given notice to our current landlord with the hope of finding a larger apartment in a quieter location. Below are additional details for our April meeting:

Marriage certificate

The checklist didn’t say we needed a copy of our marriage certificate, but we were advised that one is needed, the requirement being lumped in with “etat civil” documents. As with our birth certificates, this document must be translated into French by an authorized translator. “Mon Ami Andy” provides authorized translation services. All translations in France need to be dated less than three months from the day of the appointment.

Proof of Health insurance

Our health insurance policy letter showing coverage while we are in France must be translated into French. Another option would be to sign up for French coverage. We’ve been advised that we can do this without being members of the French social security system. Generally the cost of this coverage is not based on history/need/preexisting conditions, but simply on age. A person aged 40-50 is about 90 euros per month, 50+ about 100 euros. The Préfecture loves it if you have French coverage. It is easy for them to understand and determine approval. Since we already have US insurance with coverage in Europe, our current goal is to find a way to convince the French that our coverage meets their requirements.

Documents to show OFII health check

We have to provide the original (from April 2013) OFII health exam and chest X-rays. The Préfecture only needs to see the certificate signed/stamped by the doctor saying that we passed the medical.

Justification of resources

As visitors, we must justify our resources as sufficient for the time of our stay in France. We must provide our last 3 months bank statements from our French bank and an “attestation de compte”, which is a letter from our bank that says that we have a bank account in good standing. It is a good rule of thumb that whatever was used to justify assets for the original visa at the French consulate in America should be used again – now with the addition of any French bank assets and the bank letter. A summary of our US assets will need to be translated into French and converted into Euros.

Letter not to engage in work or services

“Mon Ami Andy” provided us with an example of a letter with appropriate French language to formally declare that we would not engage in work. This is a requirement only for visitors.

Proof of payment to OFII

The Préfecture checklist requires proof of payment to OFII for the original receipt of their approval stamp. The OFII stamp in one’s passport is proof that the taxes owed were paid.

Other considerations for success

We’ve been advised that, despite the appearance of a difficult bureaucracy, as long as all the ducks are in a row, paperwork translated, photocopies, not bound by staples, etc, Carte de Séjour (residence permit) requests very rarely get refused. Most of the decision process is based on whether or not you can afford to support yourself in France without needing French social assistance. We were able to justify this to the French Consulate in the US, and they are generally far more difficult to please than the Préfecture! At the Préfecture they like to see the documents the way that they like to see them, eg specific photocopies, specific order etc. It is worth the effort to ask for assistance in getting prepared.

Rendez-vous time

Our appointments at the Préfecture are scheduled for April 14th. This is long after our current visas expire. Unfortunately these are the earliest available appointments. The procedure is as follows: Documents for all the items on the Préfecture checklist need to be updated to within 3 months of the appointment. Only translation dates of translated documents need to be updated. Documents must be organized by originals and then copies- color documents with color copies, black and white documents with black and white copies.

Renewal date for new residence permit

Our new residence permit will expire at the end of January, 2015, a year after the original expiration of our visas. An updated Recepissé will be issued after the meeting, and a couple months later the actual residence card arrives. By that time we will need to start application to renew our residence permit for year 3!

Can we renew our lease or rent a new apartment prior to approval of the residence permit?

The Recepissé is a legal document issued by the Préfecture, which means that we are authorized to stay and reside. For all intents and purposes it has the same authority as the Carte de Séjour. We are fully legal in France until the 14th of April. Also, if for whatever reason we are not approved for the Carte de Séjour in April, we would only have to give one month’s notice to our landlord in order to terminate the contract. The lease at our current place could roll over automatically whether or not we have a valid Carte de Séjour, and our recipissé status should be no problem for any new individual owner or real estate agency. If requested, we may have to show our Carte de Séjour (residence permit) in April once we have received it. At our appointment, the Préfecture only needs to see a current rental contract; they will assume it will simply roll over upon approval of our residence permit.

How to give written notice

In France to terminate a lease you have to give written notice via the mail, to be sent with signed delivery upon receipt. The post office can help with this. Using the postal system web site, I was able to mail my signed termination and pay for the postage online and skip the trip to the post office.