Marion Nelson – 1922-2014

Marion and Bill heading off into the fog at Mount Saint Helens in 2005.

Marion and Bill heading off into the fog at Mount Saint Helens in 2005.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. This, the start of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, is also a principle in statistics. From Wikipedia – the Anna Karenina principle describes an endeavor in which a deficiency in any one of a number of factors dooms it to failure. Consequently, a successful endeavor (subject to this principle) is one where every possible deficiency has been avoided.

My mother Marion Nelson died last night. She passed away after 91 years. I looked up the meaning of “passed away” – it is a euphemism for the act of dying – a nice way of saying something that is unpleasant to discuss head on. She was at her nursing home in Pekin, Illinois. My brothers Peter and Chris were at her side. I was here in Paris – there wasn’t time to get there, and the situation was uncertain. I spent a restless night and didn’t really perceive any of my feelings except relief that her struggle and suffering were finally over. But I knew that if I waited some idea would come to me about the meaning of all this.

Mom and I shared the view that every possible deficiency should be avoided. I could be wrong, since my father was also a formidable planner, but I’m pretty sure that my mom and I had the market cornered on worrying – and to the extent that worrying alone can prevent deficiencies, voila! In an attempt to avoid every possible deficiency, I of course nixed the idea of moving to France. Fortunately I am married to someone who does not recognize the importance of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina principle – so we moved here in spite of my grave warnings.

On Mom’s side of the family, we are German. I studied German in high school and back then could actually convey my thoughts, though a trip to Munich in the ’70s convinced me that there was a limit to my abilities. German was the logical language to study in our family. It’s a somewhat harsh sounding language, and though the German’s started World War II, still I loved the connection it gave me with the important non English roots of our ancestry.

Mom, on the other hand, studied French – I have no idea why. Here in Paris, I have her French books. Her address is dutifully recorded in the binding of each, 1115 W Nevada, Urbana, IL. I have her notes in the margins. The pictures, which represented some remote possibility in her lifetime, are of places that I have visited and readily recognize. Though I am no expert, in most cases I understand the French. It’s reassuring to me that I have brought the memory of her to a place where, despite the family’s logical connection to German, she sought to study. When we notified our relatives about our crazy idea of moving to France for a year, my mom was the first to cheer and encourage us, though she must have wondered whether she would live to the end of the experiment.

We don’t exactly know what constitutes a happy family, though perhaps it is a case where you can recognize an unhappy family when you see one. Our upbringing was not all wine and roses. My mom was the enforcer. If you follow hockey in the NHL you might have some idea of what that looks like. Certainly my recollections of childhood feature her as one who would enforce the part about “woe to that man by whom the offence cometh”. I think my brothers know that too. Still, mom was wonderful in her own way. We could bring her any modern idea that excited us, and she would become excited about it too. There was always that youthful exuberance without the fear that the standards of social etiquette would crumble.

We’ve scheduled the funeral, and I’m now planning an unexpected return to the US. Conveniently the timing works with everything else we were planning to do here. It’s funny how in spite of our family having spread all over the country (and now the world), the memory of our parents binds us together now more tightly than when we were younger. We were never the smartest kids, and we were always aware that many other families enjoyed a greater economic fortune than ours. Still, every day here I have a coat of my father’s to protect me and some French textbooks of my mother to remind me of the adventure yet to come. Were I to reconsider my life, I really wouldn’t want to have it any other way.

We finally get our Cartes de Séjour (residence permits)

Up all night celebrating our new cartes de sejour and Hugh's birthday

Up all night celebrating our new cartes de sejour and Hugh’s birthday

Since November we’ve been working to assemble the paperwork required to spend another year in France. The French name for the residence permit we need is carte de séjour. A week ago we had an the appointment at the Préfecture de Police to present our dossier and receive the permit. We documented in an earlier article how we started the process and got permission to stay in France until our official appointment. In that article we showed how we had assembled all of the details we would need to provide. From there it seemed like it would be simple enough to assemble the final documents and present them to the French authorities. Not so!  What might normally be straight forward became convoluted and difficult because we don’t speak or understand French very well.

In mid-March, about a month before our meeting at the Préfecture de Police, I contacted the service assisting us to prepare for the carte de séjour, Mon Ami Andy. We met with Jennifer Denison. Since all of our translations (birth certificates, marriage certificate, health insurance policy) were more than three months old, they had to be redone. The same with the documentation of all of our assets and account balances, sources of income, etc. With Jennifer’s help we planned the following activities to get ready for the meeting:

  • We resolved questions and completed the application forms for the carte de séjour
  • We resolved that Mon Ami Andy would update the translations
  • We would need to make new copies of of our passports and the visa pages and copies of our current récépissés (temporary visa extension document)
  • We would need to include copies of the health certification from our original visit to OFII (agency who cleared us for our visa when we arrived in France).
  • We would need to rewrite our letters promising not to engage in work while in France
  • We would need to collect three months of French and US bank statements and retirement pay statements. We would also provide the letter from our French bank stating we have an account in good standing.
  • We would need to collect the latest financial account statements
  • We would need to make a spreadsheet showing all sources of income and assets, both in France and the US.
  • We would assemble three piles of documents, one of originals and all details of all documents, including our latest tax return, one with copies about Brenda, and one with copies about me.
  • We would make color copies of all color documents, black and white copies of all black and white documents. Copies of financial statements only needed the page showing the account balance. We could look at the original if there was a question.
  • We were encouraged to use a highlighter on each document, highlighting the important information we wanted the administrator to understand.

In addition to this overarching plan, we thought we needed to change our address since we moved to a new apartment in early March. Our understanding was that we needed to update it within 8 days of moving. As soon as we had what we thought were the required documents (rental contract, utility bill showing both our names, receipt showing we had paid rent, and our current passports, visas and récépissés), we went to the Préfecture at Rue Truffaut, where we had gone before, to attempt the change. They sent us away, telling us they didn’t handle changes of address. We had a difficult time figuring out where to go after that. We were told that the police station at Rue Truffaut could do it, and that might have succeeded except that they told us we didn’t have all the required documents. We needed proof of insurance, which we didn’t have with us. They told us that we could do it at our local Préfecture in the 5th arrondissement, but a policeman there told us we couldn’t. We thought maybe we could do it at the downtown Préfecture, but then found out that was not the place. Then we were told we might be able to do it at the Mayor’s office in our arrondissement, but that wasn’t correct. Finally we discovered that what the policeman told us was wrong, and that we needed to go to the 5th arrondissement Préfecture. When we finally met with them, they said we didn’t need to change the address yet, and we should just do it at our carte de séjour appointment.

By now we were closing in on the end of March, so I started in earnest getting the packages of documents together. We don’t have a printer, so every time I needed to print something I had to walk 6 blocks down the street to “Copy Self”, a local printing and copying store in our neighborhood. The guys inside know me, even though I don’t pick up much of their French chatter. I think they talk “copy speak”, mostly consisting of terms of art about toner cartridges, document settings, color correction.

I carefully planned to print as many of the documents I needed as possible. I went to Copy Self and plugged my USB flash drive into their computer. For some reason I could not print my tax return at my usual printer. The office assistant came over to help me. First he printed my tax return to another printer in the back. It came out completely distorted and sized wrong for the paper. He then asked if I wanted to print all the documents at once, which I agreed to do since it seemed easiest. He moved my USB drive to another computer, selected all the documents, and hit print. My tax return document required that I type in my password. Only one hitch – I didn’t know of any password for that document. The assistant asked his boss for assistance. They exchanged copy speak – soon the boss took over. Every document required a password, but he did something to get them to print. Everything printed in portrait even though a good percentage of the documents are set up to print in landscape. It was printing disaster!

I took my 80 plus pages of financial documents home. That night I lay awake worried about identity theft. The next morning I assembled another package of summary financial pages and pages that needed to be printed in color, plus my tax return. I returned to Copy Self and kept things under control this time. By then my packages were coming together, but I was sick of getting ready for this meeting. All my time in France was being spent preparing to get a residence permit. I complained to our French tutor. I complained to Brenda. They tried to make helpful suggestions, but I was having none of it. I wanted this monkey off my back. I complained to my coach, who pulled me up short to ask how was I taking care of myself. We figured out that I needed a rest. Also I needed to recognize that others were making suggestions to try to help me because they could recognize better than me that I needed help. My real job at that point was to help myself.

A few days remained until our appointment. I agreed to take time off – we surfed the web at the Luxembourg Gardens and walked around town. I went to the gym and went to bed earlier at night. I resigned myself that if there was a problem, they would give me more time to fix it.

Our package was assembled. We had another meeting on Skype with Jennifer from Mon Ami Andy to go over everything. I highlighted the places in our documents where the income stream on my spread sheet showed up as deposits in the three months of US bank statements. I highlighted where transfers occurred from the US to France, and provided copies of the transfer documents themselves. I downloaded and printed the Tricare Overseas (retired military medical insurance) pages to show that we were enrolled and to show the list of recommended physicians and hospitals in France. I created an example of a bill from our doctor that I paid and for which I filed a claim and received reimbursement. I went over the checklist again and again, finding a few more mistakes and fixing them (and trudging back to Copy Self to print new copies). Brenda and I rehearsed how we would assemble our documents, how we would present them, and what we would say. On Sunday before our Monday appointment, we rested.

On Monday we went about 2 hours early to our official appointment at the main Préfecture office on Île de la Cité. We got through security and lined up outside of the room where we were to have our meeting. A man at the front door greeted us and quickly checked our paperwork, which he pronounced as “magnifique”. Then he gave us each a ticket and told us to sit down. In our room full of people, there really weren’t others like us. There were corporate employees with their families and a corporate attorney to shepherd them through the process, spouses one of whom is a French citizen and the other requiring to establish residence, students following the instructions from their schools, and others who spoke good French. People always ask us, why are you here, to which we shrug and say because we thought we would like it.

We were finally called to our meeting with a young woman, I would guess in her ’20s. She first went through Brenda’s paperwork and then through mine. She asked questions about our medical insurance, but after we demonstrated the process for reimbursement, she checked with her supervisor and accepted the plan. She was happy with everything else. Finally she wanted to know why Brenda’s last name was neither mine nor her maiden name. Brenda had been married in Australia in the ’70s. The woman asked for a copy of the divorce decree. I told her that I didn’t have it with me, but could get a copy at our apartment. She said she was going to lunch, and for us to get it and meet her back afterward with it.

We raced home and got our copy of the nearly 35 year old document, which I had attached to an original copy of our marriage license in an envelope of extra stuff I had brought first to San Francisco and then to France just in case. 25 years ago we sent to Australia for it so that we could obtain a military ID for Brenda when I was in the Navy. No one had ever asked about it since. We raced back to the Préfecture, entered back through security and waited for our inspector to return from lunch. When she finally returned I gave her the document, and she asked me for the translation. Checkmate – I told her I didn’t have a translation. She consulted her supervisor and bought back three documents for us to sign, two swearing that we were married and one for me to agree to accept whatever liability France might bear for our not having a good enough divorce decree [my interpretation]. Since I have already signed many software end user agreements, I readily signed what was put before me.

Our inspector printed new récépissés for us to verify and sign. We are once again legal residents in France. She also gave us each a Convocation (appointment slip) to pick up our real Cartes de Sejour on or after June 25th. The new permit is good through the end of January 2015. To renew that one, we need to start 5 months ahead of time, which would be next October.

In the aftermath I came down with a cold, which I’ve now passed on to Brenda. Still, we celebrated our new cartes de séjour and my birthday with our French friends Cat and Jacques, including a night of dancing. I just hit 21 for the third time (63), still trying to grow up.

A new apartment in Paris

Boulevard Saint-Germain when it was first created

We’ve moved just 3 blocks from our first apartment in a medieval building along the Seine to a new apartment in Paris built on Boulevard Saint-Germain during the Haussmannian era of the mid 1800s. From roughly 1850 to 1870 France was governed by Emperor Napoleon III, who as a main priority set about remodeling Paris to open up the view from the narrow, cramped medieval streets and to install sewer and water systems that would serve the city as it grew. To do so, he appointed an exceptionally strong public administrator, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, as Prefect of the Seine Department of France. Haussmann carried out a program to demolish crowded and unhealthy medieval neighborhoods, to annex suburbs surrounding Paris, to relocate many thousands of people from central Paris to the suburbs, to create a series of wide, straight avenues with parks and squares, to construct new sewers, fountains and aqueducts. He overcame tremendous opposition to do this, and in 1870 he was dismissed by Napoleon III to assuage pressure from his critics. The third phase of Haussmann’s plans was still unfinished, but work continued even after he was fired and was finally completed in 1927. In the end, hundreds of old buildings were razed, and more than 80 kilometers of new avenues were constructed.

Our new apartment building

The Paris you know today was the Paris created by Haussmann. The uniformity spelled out in Haussmann’s building codes created a look that is distinctly Parisian, but if you’ve seen one Haussmann apartment, you’ve seen them all. There is still a certain sentiment for the old medieval streets and wood beamed buildings.

We moved for several reasons, but our new place has both pluses and minuses compared to the old one. We looked at apartments all over Paris, but in the end opted for another apartment in the 5th arrondissement simply because we like that neighborhood the best. The basic improvements we sought were a quieter location with more space for guests and a kitchen with an oven. The new apartment is about 50% larger and has a much better arrangement for guests. It has high ceilings and appears much more spacious. Also the fixtures and appliances are better quality. It looks on a courtyard rather than out into a noisy street. On the negative side, the new apartment was quite dirty, and we spent many unanticipated hours cleaning. We were able to negotiate a rent credit for some of the time we spent. The new apartment was not nearly as well furnished as our first, so we’ve spent considerable time and money buying missing pieces. The old apartment had double paned windows, while the new one has the original single panes – you can see the glass flowing. Brenda misses the view of Notre Dame and the light and bright feel of the old place, as well as the large luxurious marble bath with double sinks. Hugh loves it that the new place is quiet at night.

Our medieval street, Rue de Bievre. The French President François Mitterand had lived halfway down the block.

The medieval street, Rue de Bievre, at the old apartment shows how Paris was before Haussmann.

It was the first time we had to arrange for gas and electricity, since utilities and Internet had been handled by the landlord in the first apartment. We were able to call the Frech utility EDF and make our arrangements in English, which really helped since we had to estimate our usage of gas and electricity to properly size the capacity that would be allocated to us. We pay a flat rate that can be adjusted based on meter readings each quarter. The start up of our service went very smoothly. While at the old apartment the heat was electric, here we have gas heat (radiators) and hot water. The old apartment had two electric meters, one with a lower rate from 11pm to 7 am, the other with a higher rate during the daytime. Here we have only one electric meter and one gas meter, the assumption being that since we use the cheaper gas for heat and hot water, we don’t need the same incentives to save power. Gas in Europe generally costs 2-3 times as much as we pay in the US. We have become much better conservers of energy.

It was also the first time for us to sign up for Internet service. Since we already had two mobile phone accounts with Orange, a provider of both mobile and residential communications services, we shopped with them first. For and additional 25 Euros per month, we arranged bundled services that include, in addition to our two cell phones, fiberoptic internet and HD TV with extra on demand movies and TV (all in French of course), unlimited calling to US land lines, plus a mobile hot spot for up to 4 devices that has unlimited data usage. Telecoms are competing in Europe! Our total bill for two cell phones and all our residential communications needs is about 75 Euros per month, far less than we pay in the US.

Installation was not easy. Hugh made an appointment to meet the installer, but when he contacted our building concierge about getting access to the basement for part of the work, she refused him and told him it would have to be after 6 pm because she had other plans for that day. Hugh went and requested that the appointment be cancelled, but the installer showed up anyway. It took over 6 hours to figure out the best way to pull fiberoptic cable from the connection point outside our apartment into the place were the “set top box” was to be located. The installer was quite ingenious and revealed many secrets about how these buildings from the 1800’s can meet the needs of today.

Shortly before 6 pm we again contacted the concierge, who argued with the installer for about half an hour about why we should need to upgrade service, also noting that she had not agreed to assist prior to 6 pm even though she was now there talking to us. She called down some of our neighbors, who testified on our behalf that what we were requesting was necessary. We remained quiet throughout the process and let the installers and the neighbors settle the issue. Finally the concierge relented and our installer was able to complete work in about 5 minutes.

Living room and dining rooms – picture on left was my Valentine’s present

We had to change our address with the mail service so that mail sent to the old address would be forwarded. In France it costs 35 Euros for the service to forward mail for 6 months. Unfortunately, there was a parcel had been sent though the mail that could not be forwarded. Brenda purchased a French print for Hugh to be delivered on Valentine’s Day. It was being sent by mail through La Poste. Unfortunately, the company promising delivery notified us that there was a delay. Perhaps a week later they sent email to us that the print had shipped and included the tracking number for the package. Hugh tracked the package but noted that it remained at an unidentified location at La Poste (somewhere in Paris) for more than a week. We contacted the company that shipped the print and also visited our local post office, who could not help us with locating the parcel. Finally we received email from La Poste that they would be contacting us for delivery. Unfortunately by then we had moved. After the mandatory 2 tries to deliver (we think you need to be standing by your mail box when they show up because they made no attempt to contact us), we received notice that we could pick up the parcel at the post office. We went there the next day with our notice. The postal clerk asked us for identification. He would not accept any ID except an original passport (not drivers license or copy of passport). Hugh had to go back and get the passports before we received our package.

When we opened it we discovered it was damaged – a small dent in the tube caused a crease the length of the print. Eventually we were able to return the print to the company that shipped it and receive a new one. We were able to purchase a frame and hang it a month or so after Valentine’s Day. Voila! All’s well that ends well.

The new apartment remains a work in progress. Here are some photos comparing old and new and showing what it’s like in the new place. It has been a pleasant surprise to discover that there is a world of new shops and activities right in the same area where we’ve been living the past year.

Valentine’s Day in Paris

Abelard and his school on the hill dedicated to Saint Genevive (near today's Pantheon)

Abelard and his school on the hill dedicated to Saint Genevive (near today’s Pantheon) – wall painting at the Sorbonne.

Like in the US, stores milk Valentine’s day in Paris for as many sales of chocolate and hearts and roses and you name it as possible. Plus, Paris is for lovers so there’s no shortage of kissing going on. Still Paris has its own literature that conveys the spriit of Valentine’s Day in a more permanent sense.

Valentine’s Day may come to you as either an awkward moment (pour moi) or a day to be celebrated (pour ma femme) in all its glory. Wikipedia refers to the Roman presbyter (Christian leader) Saint Valentine, of whom some say:

A popular hagiographical account of Saint Valentine of Rome states that he was imprisoned for performing weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry and for ministering to Christians, who were persecuted under the Roman Empire. According to legend, during his imprisonment, he healed the daughter of his jailer, Asterius. An embellishment to this story states that before his execution he wrote her a letter signed “Your Valentine” as a farewell.

The English author Geoffrey Chaucer was the first associated with this idea as an expression of romantic love. In Paris we can find a couple of examples of the Valentine ideal that go way beyond what most men and women are willing to commit to in modern society.

First there is the story of Peter Abelard and Héloïse. Pierre Abelard was a well known scholar in Paris in the early 12th century,  “the keenest thinker and boldest theologian of the 12th Century”. Abelard’s career brought him to the Cathedral School at Notre Dame de Paris, the epitome for his profession, and it was then that his scholastic life was interrupted by his meeting with Héloïse d’Argente, who was under the care of her uncle, the secular canon Fulbert. She attracted Abelard’s attention with her remarkable knowledge of classical letters. In about 1116 he began an affair with her, and she became pregnant (and gave birth to a son named Astrolabe). He sent her to Brittany to live with his family. As a cleric of the Church he could not be married. He arranged a secret marriage to her through Fulbert, but when Fulbert disclosed it, Abelard sent Héloïse to the convent at Argenteuil, where she led the life of a Nun. Fulbert arranged for Abelard to be castrated, ending his romantic career. Abelard became a monk at the monastery of Saint Denis near Paris.

The graves of Pierre Abelard and Héloïse d'Argenteuil, side by side at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris

The graves of Pierre Abelard and Héloïse d’Argenteuil, side by side at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris

Here he published his famous work Historia Calamitatum (known in English as “Story of His Misfortunes” or “A history of my Calamities”), which is a readable window into the life of an academic of the church prior to founding of the first university in Paris. His thoughts on his relationship with Héloïse were a key part. She responded with a letter to him, and they began a correspondence, though they could never again be together. The letters revealed both her continued devotion and his regrets for the troubles his love had caused.

Abelard’s later writings and teachings were controversial, and he was accused of heresy by Bernard of Clairvaux and condemned by the Pope. He was assigned to a monastery and his books were to be burned. Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny intervened. He reconciled Abelard with Bernard and the Pope and persuaded everyone that it was enough that Abelard remain under the protection of Cluny. Abelard passed away in 1142, his accusations largely resolved, and his reputation as a wise scholar restored. Héloïse died in 1163.

Though some researchers dispute this, it is thought that Héloïse’s bones were placed alongside Pierre’s when she died. At the behest of Napoleon’s wife Josephine Bonaparte, their bones were moved to a well known tomb at Père-Lachaise cemetery, where today “lovers from all over the world visit the tomb where the remains of Heloise and Abelard rest eternally together.” I’ll have to say we were among those who have visited.

Now a second story, shorter than the first. At the end of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame“, there is this passage relating the fates of Quasi Modo and Esmeralda (translated):

“…they found among those hideous carcasses two skeletons, one of which held the other in its embrace. One of these skeletons, which was that of a woman, still had a few strips of garment which had once been white, and around her neck was to be seen a string of adrèzarach beads with a little silk bag ornamented with green glass, which was open and empty. These objects were of so little value that the executioner had probably not cared for them. The other, which held this one in a close embrace, was the skeleton of a man. It was noticed that his spinal column was crooked, his head seated on his shoulder blades, and that one leg was shorter than the other. Moreover there was no fracture of the vertebrae at the nape of the neck, and it was evident that he had not been hanged. Hence the man to whom it had belonged had come thither and had died there. When they tried to detach the skeleton which he held in his embrace, he fell to dust.”

There – that’s some Valentine’s Day for you.

Notary Service at the US Embassy Paris

US Embassy Paris - visitors lined up near the small tent on the left and entered via the guard house to the right of the tent

US Embassy Paris – visitors lined up near the small tent on the left and entered via the guard house to the right of the tent

I recently had to use the Notary Service at the US Embassy Paris. My strategy to transfer funds from our US bank to our account in France has been to use a 3rd party company, Venstar Exchange, to provide a better exchange rate than we  could get through the bank. A US bank might charge 3% above the spot exchange rate (plus a wire fee) to transfer funds. A 3% premium is also what you might pay for Euro purchases with your US credit card. On fairly large transfers, such as $25,000, the difference in the quoted exchange rate (Venstar charges a little over 1% above the spot rate quoted at 10 minute intervals) can amount to a significant amount of money. Previously I had been able to initiate wire transfers by sending wiring instructions to our US bank using secure email on their web site.

Recently I sent a funds transfer request to our US bank, and they told me that their procedures had changed. I would need to complete and have notarized a new form with two parts, one authorizing the Venstar account where we send the funds (which they convert to Euros and forward to our French account), and a second part that specifies how to handle recurring transfers so I could complete future transfers with just a phone call verification of my identity. Where do you get a US Notary in France? You have to go to the US Embassy.

We’d been by the American Embassy before. It’s on 2 Avenue Gabriel, just off Place de la Concorde and close by the Elysée Palace where the President of France lives. One day after hiking the Champs-Élysées we were passing by, and I tried to take a photo from the sidewalk outside the security fence. I was immediately whistled down (you know you’re in trouble when guys start to whistle at you) and informed that photos were not permitted.

To see a notary, I made an appointment on the Embassy web site – they had one available in 5 days. The consulate sent me a couple emails asking me to confirm the appointment and assuring me that correct completion of the form was up to me and that they could not in any way help me interpret my paperwork. Fair enough. I sent the bank a list of questions and then used their answers to make sure that I correctly filled out their form, which was an internal bank form not really set up for use by a notary. Their answers also provided instructions about how Embassy was to notarize the form.

Armed with my passport, my appointment form, and all my other paperwork, I set out for my appointment at the Embassy. The weather was cold – windy and in the mid ’30s (yes I know that would be a heat wave in Minnesota). The guard outside checked me off on his schedule and directed me to go stand in line outside the security building behind about 20 other people. We all stood there for about 15 minutes until they began to invite people one at a time into the secure guard building nearby for a security check. Eventually I got to go inside, where they used procedures similar to what you experience at the airport to clear me for entry. After the security check, they took away my cell phone and keys and directed me outside, across a courtyard and into the visitors area in the Embassy itself.

While I was waiting in line, I could see Embassy employees coming and going through a different entrance, but the area where visitors were sent was completely isolated from all embassy staff. Visitors can interact with staff to address their needs through 15 bullet proof glass windows with pass through slots. Perhaps a hundred visitors were waiting in the large seating area. I took a number and followed the instructions they gave me to sit and wait for my turn.

When my number was flashed on the monitor, I went to the designated counter and described what I needed to the woman behind the bullet proof glass. She took my form and passport, issued me a bill for $100, and sent me over to the cashier to pay. The employee taking my credit card laughed when I remarked that the service was “très cher”. Then I went back to wait some more. I was called back to sign the document and swear that the information I was providing was true and accurate, and I was done – it only took a minute.

I left the visitors area and returned to the guard building to recover my keys and phone. Then I exited the security perimeter and headed for freedom, reflecting on how the politics of our world has so restricted many aspects of our lives. I guess we really wouldn’t want it any other way, but what should be a “friendly home” to Americans in France has been transformed into a foreboding and unwelcoming space. I made my way into Place de la Concorde, looked back, and furtively took a photo.

Northern Ireland: The Troubles

Tour of “The Troubles” in Catholic Belfast

Memorial mural to the Troubles on Falls Road, Belfast

Memorial mural to the Troubles on Falls Road, Belfast

As part of our Belfast visit we wanted to learn more about the conflict in Northern Ireland known as “The Troubles”. Anyone old enough can remember how from the early ’70s until well into the ’90s, year after year, every day there would be stories in the news of bombings and killings and disagreements and fighting in Northern Ireland. How did Northern Ireland come to be? What was the fighting all about? How did it start and finally end?

There’s a great deal of complexity to Irish history, and we can only skim the surface in a short article. Still, the story of this conflict needs to be told because it is like so many others that perpetuate in our world today, whether it be the problems with race relations in the US, the conflict over the state of Israel, or the civil wars in Syria, Afganistan, Iraq, Egypt, and numerous other states.

There are two sides to every argument. The British and their Unionist followers in Northern Ireland had political and governmental goals that to them seemed every bit as valid and necessary as the Irish Republican reasoning that we heard about during our tour. The safety and security of a large portion of the population was at risk through the actions of rebellious minority group. The Irish Republicans whose rights were being oppressed decided to stand up until their grievances were addressed. The best practice for doing this has yet to be invented. Redressing the problems caused when one people subjects another people to their will and discriminates against them is painfully difficult – witness efforts in the US to undo slavery.

We’ll describe our tour and afterwards provide more historical details of the period leading up to “The Troubles”, a short history of Irish Republicanism, and a basic historical recounting of period of “The Troubles”.

Jack Duffin on left as our group winds up Falls Avenue in Belfast

Jack Duffin on left as our group winds up Falls Avenue in Belfast. He is talking about how large numbers of Catholics were suddenly displaced from their homes by security forces.

Brenda and I took a more than 2 hour walking tour of Belfast along Falls Road heading west from downtown. Falls Road runs through the center of the Catholic neighborhood in West Belfast. A couple of major streets to the north was Shankill Rd, which was the heart of the Protestent neighborhood. These two neighborhoods were where many of the incidents of “The Troubles” took place.

Our guide was a staunch Republican (a supporter of a free Irish state and usually a Catholic) named Jack Duffin. He is a left leaning supporter of the Irish Republican Army who would like to see Northern Ireland become part of the Republic of Ireland. Jack was born and raised in the same neighborhoods where the fighting occurred. He had been on the front lines, and many of his friends were killed or arrested during the course of the conflict. Jack now works for a company called Coiste, which has a small office near the tour route and also a great web site at http://www.coiste.ie, where you can learn more about the story of “The Troubles”.

There were only 7 in our group – five from the US and two from Italy. From the US we had a Ph.D. graduate student doing research for his thesis, a UCLA Ph.D student and her boyfriend who were enroute to Egypt for similar studies, and us.

Our tour started at the Divis Tower, the location of one of the early neighborhood battles of 1969, then past Saint Comgell’s Primary School, where we could see some of the bullet holes in the concrete and brick. We stopped at a memorial for the Republicans martyrs from one neighborhood and across the street saw a block of murals supporting various situations involving human rights all over the world. A short while later we stopped at a library funded by Andrew Carnegie. Jack pointed out that the Republicans have a museum in an old factory building that was a linen factory back in the days when Belfast was the largest producer of linen in the world. He described how miserable working conditions were for those early factory workers.

We passed several building murals dedicated to players of the Belfast Celtic Football Club, reportedly one of the best soccer teams in the world from 1891 to 1949. The football club ended in 1949 as a result of fighting between Catholic team members and Protestant fans.

Mural for Bobby Sands and Sinn Fein Headquarters

Mural for Bobby Sands near Sinn Fein Headquarters

There was a memorial on the side of one building for the martyr Bobby Sands. Bobby Sands was a leader of a Hunger Strike in 1981 while he was imprisoned at Her Majesty’s Maze Prison south of Belfast. The Catholic prisoners sent there during “The Troubles” considered themselves to be prisoners of war. In the early ’70s the British government had agreed to grant these prisoners a Special Category Status, allowing political prisoners of the conflict to not wear the normal prison uniforms, not perform prison work, to freely communicate with one another, and the right to one visit, one parcel, and one letter per week. These rights were revoked by the British in 1976, and the hunger strike was a protest that these rights had been removed. Bobby Sands died of starvation after 66 days. During the hunger strike, Sands was elected in a special election to the British House of Commons, though he died of hunger in prison before he could ever take his elected seat.

We stopped in front of the local Sinn Féin office, with memorial placards above the door to fallen members of the Provisional IRA during the Troubles. One was Pat McGeown, a leader who died in 1996 from complications started during his hunger strike in prison in 1981. Another was to Máire Drumm, Vice President of Sinn Féin when she was assassinated in 1976. Two other placards were memorials to 6 members who had been killed by the RUC in the early ’90s.

We passed by the place where President Bill Clinton met with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams in November 1995. Adams has been President of Sinn Féin since 1983. President Clinton was revered by the Catholic community for his support of Gerry Adams and the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Royal Hospital, where the first air conditioner was installed, where defibrillator paddles were invented, where modern gunshot wound treatment was advanced.

Royal Hospital, where the first air conditioner was installed, where defibrillator paddles were invented, where modern gunshot wound treatment was advanced.

A couple blocks later we passed by the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, where Gerry Adams’s life was saved after an assassination attempt in 1984. As a result of the many assaults during “The Troubles”, the hospital became a cutting edge facility for the treatment of gunshot woulds. It also made another significant contribution to emergency medicine – a doctor there invented the portable defibrillator. The hospital was also the world’s first air conditioned public building, the unit having been developed by the Sirocco Works in Belfast in 1906.

We continued along Falls Rd, eventually reaching another area where the street side was lined with posters, one still demanding justice for a bombing in 1971 that killed fifteen patrons at McGurk’s Bar. Individual posters cited the death of over 200 Republicans, showing each to have been murdered at the hands of the Unionist paramilitary groups, the police, or British troops. Jack knew a number of them personally and recounted for us each of their stories.

We went by the home of James Connolly, where he lived in Belfast from 1910 to 1913. Connolly was a socialist politician and leader of trade unions who is revered for his advocacy of Irish nationalism and independence. In 1916 he led a group of volunteers in what became known as the Easter Rising. The Irish Nationalists attacked and took over various areas of Dublin and proclaimed Ireland as an independent republic. The British troops quickly quelled the uprising, and Connolly was badly wounded and had only a short time to live. Still, the British found him guilty of treason, tied him to a chair (since he could not stand) and executed him. Such martyrdom did not go unnoticed – the public awareness soon increased public support for Irish nationalism.

Memorial to some of the fallen Republicans at the Catholic Cemetery on Andersontown Rd in Belfast

Memorial to some of the fallen Republicans at the Catholic Cemetery on Andersontown Rd in Belfast

The tour ended by passing the Protestant Falls Park cemetery, where many of the Unionist victims are buried, and then proceeded to the Catholic Milltown cemetery on the opposite side of the road, where we viewed many graves of the Nationalists, including Bobby Sands.

Our tour ended in the dark and the rain, and afterwards we all went together to a nearby club where we hoisted a pint of Guiness to our guide and to the memory of those in the conflict. The Americans in our group were highly interested in “The Troubles”, and we enjoyed the stimulating discussion. On our cab ride home, the driver related his own feelings about “The Troubles”. He also noted that we’d just come from the most Republican club in town.

See more photos of the tour.

Some history leading up to “The Troubles”

How did Scots and English become the majority in Northern Ireland?

According to a Wikipedia article, the area that is now Northern Ireland was sparsely populated by Gaelic Irish, clans or tribes that migrated seasonally with their cattle. It was the most Gaelic part of Ireland. In the 1590s, the forces of the Gaelic Irish chieftains fought the Nine Years War to oppose English rule in Ireland. The war was throughout Ireland, but was mainly fought in the northern province of Ulster. The English won the war, and in in 1601, in exchange for King James I pardoning the chieftains, they gave up control of their land to England, a substantial part of what is now Northern Ireland. At the end of the war this area was sparsely populated with perhaps 25,000 to 45,000 people.

In 1609 the English organized to colonize a substantial portion of the counties of Ulster, redistributing the land to Protestants from England and Scotland. The English intention was to civilize the Ulster region and to anglicize the Irish, including converting them to Protestantism. The principal landowners, known as Undertakers, were wealthy men from Scotland and England who undertook to import tenants from their own estates. All tenants were to be English speaking and Protestant. Veterans of the Nine Years War also lobbied successfully to receive land grants, these to be paid for by subsidies from other organizations within England. Also the remaining portions of Northern Ireland that were not part of the official plantation, including the area around Belfast, were planted with immigrants in many cases by the private land owners.

In 1641 there was a massacre of about 4000 Protestant settlers when the Irish Catholic population staged a rebellion on the Ulster plantation. Another 8000 Protestants went home as a result. The English sent a force of 10,000 to quell the rebellion, and they committed many atrocities against the Catholics. After the conflict, there were no more Catholic landowners in the Ulster region, but so many of the tenants in the plantation areas had left that the percentage of immigrants was actually greatest in the privately settled areas closer to what is now Belfast.

After England’s William III conquered Ireland in 1691, a complicated series of acts were put in place to limit and discriminate against the Irish Catholics and also those Presbyterian Protestants who would not swear an oath of allegiance to the King. These included exclusion from public office, a ban on interfaith marriages and the state’s refusal to recognize marriage of Presbyterians, barring of Catholics from holding firearms, exclusion from the legal profession and judiciary, ban on converting from Protestantism to Catholicism, and many more similar restrictions. Many of these restrictions were later repealed, but they remained as a strongly resonant element in the politics of Irish Catholicism for long afterwards.

The author and sociologist Allan G Johnson describes how over the years of English control, the English subjected the native Irish to discrimination:

“The British came to view the Irish as something like a separate species altogether, possessing inferior traits that were biologically passed from one generation to the next. In this, the British were inventing a concept of race that made it a path of least resistance to see other peoples as subhuman if not nonhuman, making it easier to objectify them and more difficult to feel empathy for them as members of their own kind, both integral to the exertion of control over others.”

This historical undercurrent eventually resurfaced in the tension between the Irish Catholics and ancestors of the migrant English and Scottish Protestants that boiled over in the a period of civil conflict between 1969 and 1998 known as “The Troubles”.

History of Irish Republicanism

History of Irish Republicanism from the Coiste web site:

Following the enforced partition of Ireland by the British Government in 1921 the newly elected Unionist Government in the Six Counties set about establishing a form of religious apartheid,’a protestant parliament for a protestant people’, as one former Unionist prime minister described it. In the decades between 1921 and 1969, Catholics and Nationalists bore the brunt of institutionalised discrimination and state repression. No opposition to Unionist rule was tolerated.

By the 1960s the Northern Ireland Civil Rights association was formed, and began to campaign peacefully for basic civil rights – one person one vote and an end to discrimination in housing and employment. That peaceful campaign was met with violence by the Unionist regime; demonstrators were attacked with batons, tear gas and eventually live bullets. Whipped into a frenzy of sectarian hatred and fear, loyalist mobs supported by the police force (RUC and B Specials) swept into Nationalist districts throughout Belfast on the night of the 15th August. Hundreds of Nationalist homes and businesses were attacked and destroyed leaving thousands of Nationalists homeless. That evening Gerard Mc Auley, just 15 years of age, was shot and killed by Loyalists. Later Patrick Rooney just 9 years of age was shot and killed by the RUC. Trooper Mc Cabe who was on home leave at the time from his regiment in the British Army was also shot and killed by the RUC in the Divis Street area.

Before 1969 the IRA was a relatively small organisation, made up for most part of older men and women who had previously fought military campaigns against British rule in Ireland. After the suppression of the civil rights movement and the pogroms, hundreds of men and women joined the ranks of the IRA. The British Government ordered British troops onto the streets again and the perennial struggle between the British and Irish Republicans began again.

Short history of the period of “The Troubles”

Wikipedia provides an overview of “The Troubles”:

“The Troubles” refers to the three decades of violence between elements of Northern Ireland’s Irish nationalist community (mainly self-identified as Irish and/or Roman Catholic) and its unionist community (mainly self-identified as British and/or Protestant). The conflict was the result of discrimination against the Irish nationalist/Catholic minority by the unionist/Protestant majority and the question of Northern Ireland’s status within the United Kingdom.

In 1964 Nationalist Catholic Irish began a civil rights campaign to end restrictions on government hiring, gerrymandering of election districts, changing of the vote from 1 vote per household to 1 vote per person, reform of the police (the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was almost 100% Protestant), and repeal of special powers that enabled search without a warrant, imprisonment without trial, banishment of assembly, etc. During the period from 1964 to 1969 the Unionists organized several loyalist paramilitary groups: the Ulter Volunteer Force (UVF) among people in the Shankill Rd neighborhood north of Falls Rd; the Ulster Constitution Defence Committee (UCDC) set up a paramilitary style wing called the Ulster Protestant Volunteers (UPV). During the same period the Nationalists formed the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). During these years there are skirmishes but not outbreaks, and the Nationalists continued to press their case for civil rights.

In 1969, loyalist paramilitary groups bombed electricity and water installations in Northern Ireland, and cast blame upon the then dormant Irish Republican Army. Outside of Belfast, there was fighting between Protestants and Catholics in Derry. Loyalists in Belfast invaded the Republican neighborhoods, burned houses and businesses. Republicans exchanged gunfire with Loyalists and the RUC. British troops were deployed to restore order.

During the period 1970 to 1972, violence escalated and over 500 people lost their lives . Two more Republican groups formed, the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Official Irish Republican Army. Our tour guide was a member of the Official IRA and described the Provisional IRA members as being angered and driven to action by their loss, but not ideologically in tune with the political ideas of the Official IRA. The newer Provisional IRA was more attuned to armed struggle. Unionists imposed a “Falls Curfew” upon the residents of the Falls Rd . Also they imposed internment without trial, almost always applied to the Republicans rather than the Unionists. By 1972 the Provisional IRA had carried out a destructive campaign of violence, killing about 100 soldiers and carrying out more than 1300 bombing of mostly commercial targets. The Official IRA carried out a similar campaign. Loyalist paramilitary groups retaliated by assassinating Republicans, and both Protestants and Catholics were displaced out of their communities by force.

In 1972, the government of Great Britain passed emergency legislation dissolving the Loyalist Government at Stormont, Northern Ireland and introducing direct rule from London.

In 1974 an effort to achieve a cease fire failed, and for the rest of the 1970’s the two sides traded violent attacks. In 1981 ten Republican prisoners starved themselves to death as they advocated restoring a political status to the Republicans in Northern Ireland. The first to die, Bobby Sands, was elected to Parliament. Over 100,000 people attended his funeral. The IRA received arms from Muammar Gaddafi of Libya during this period. During the ’80s, the paramilitary violence between Unionists and Republicans continued unabated.

Sinn Fein headquarters on Falls Road

Sinn Fein headquarters on Falls Road

In the late ’80s, the political wing of the Provisional IRA, Sinn Féin, led by Gerry Adams, sought a negotiated end to the conflict. After prolonged negotiations between Loyalists, Republicans, and the British, the first cease fire was declared in 1994. Subsequent violence interrupted this first attempt. The IRA bombed targets in the UK.

In 1997 a second cease fire was declared with the assistance of the US government as negotiations without the agreement of Sinn Féin became known as the Good Friday Agreement. Later in the year Sinn Féin agreed to the conditions. President Bill Clinton visited Northern Ireland during this time and arranged a US visa for Gerry Adams. He met with leaders of both sides of the conflict and today is well remembered for his influence in helping to bring an end to “The Troubles”.

Though some violence still occurred, the second cease fire has largely held up and a political process has begun. Self government has been restored to Northern Ireland, and the police force has been reformed. There are still some significant problems to be resolved.

Between 1969 and 2001, 3526 people were killed. More statistics of casualties can be found here.

When the north was divided from the rest of Ireland and kept British in 1921, Northern Ireland was about 70% Unionist. Today the percentage of Unionists has dwindled to about 48%, according to our tour guide. Sinn Féin has grown to be the second largest political party in Northern Ireland.

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.