25 October 2017

Autumn in the South of France - and a Trip to Berlin


Autumn - the wine harvesting machinery is quiet. 
The fields are turning red and golden. 


The boats are slower. They take their time.
Most of the tourists have gone home. 
And yet - it's probably the most beautiful time of the year. 
The light is low and shadows are long, while days are growing shorter.


Friends Chris and Tim from New Mexico stop by -

Chris picks up a fresh baguette from our local shop, ordered the day before.
- we enjoy the wine and evenings with friends on the aft deck, and do a little exploring. 

We may look like a bunch of 'greys', but - these are ALL surprisingly cool people.
French kids are all back in school now.
So - we head down to the coast with fellow boaters Fiona and Ron.
The beach is beautiful - and almost empty.


The Mediterranean is a totally different atmosphere from canal life. 
- Even though we're only a few miles from the coast!


In between, a short trip up to Berlin, to visit Mikey and Iris, and see how Noah is growing. 

Great fall weather in Berlin, too!
Stan gives Noah his first ukulele lesson.
(he's 10 months old now, obviously ready to start serious training-)


I visit Mikey's new school at the old "Funkhaus", and we explore one of Berlin's islands.


(Along the way, we run across a small alien spaceship...but that's another story.)


Another exploration now that the crowds have gone - Avignon.
(Very impressed!)

It's a totally walled city - there are quite a few of those still around. Aigues-Mortes is another one we visited.


And then - back to Maggie May. 


With the days getting shorter and cooler, it's time for longer walks. 
From a hill above our village, we can see both the Mediterranean - and - the Pyrenees. 
The vineyards are colorful. The light - the air - just right.

I enjoy seeing the "baguette bags" on people's doorways. 

Some day, I'll draw a series of these.
The bread van delivers fresh baguettes to your house each morning. Of course.
(He'd probably deliver them to the boat if we asked-)

Details of a life - thoroughly enjoyed.




03 October 2017

Canal du Midi Odyssey - Taking Maggie May out for the First Time


September! It's cooler. 
Time to take Maggie May out for a REAL trip on the canals - and see how she does.


However, we were both mildly terrified at the thought.

Suppose we ran into one of THESE as we were trying to negotiate our way through a narrow port? 


Or what if we met one under a bridge?
Clearly, THOSE boats have priority. 


Would we be able to handle a boat of 25 TONS - with water and fuel - through all the twisty bends of the canals, squeeze precisely into locks with other boats, slide easily through crowded towns - with some degree of expertise? After all, Maggie May doesn't exactly turn on a dime.


We stowed the bicycles and the extra fenders. 
Cleaned up the lines and checked everything. Twice.
Heart hammering just a little bit - off we went. 


The first bridge, in Capestang, is one of the tightest on the canal. 
How precise would our aim be going through it? 

(And of course, Capestang being our main town, we know all sorts there. 
Would we totally embarrass ourselves?)

Capestang bridge - a tight squeeze.

We made it, but we DID scrape one corner of the bimini.
(the back canopy, which was already folded down-)

Adjustment #1: Lower it to the level of the back railing.
As LOW as we can get it.

Before we lowered it - even further.
But after the first bridge, all the 49 others went smoothly.
A lot of them are pretty small, and often at an angle.


We practiced accurate mooring. 
Stopping. Reversing straight. 
Making corrections. 
Turning around in a narrow canal. 


And in the evenings, we moored somewhere between vineyards and fields.
(They call it "wild" mooring.) 

Stan's excellent handmade gang plank.
(It WAS kind of wild, when Stan and the gangplank didn't agree at one point.
Good thing his shoes are waterproof.)

Beautiful autumn weather - the whole trip.
After our first day cruising, we noticed water - in the engine room. 
Where was it coming from? Mystery. Not a good one.

After that, we mopped it up every morning.
 (Too hot down there after the engine had been running all day-) 
Hoping it didn't get any worse.


Then, we began going through the locks.

With only 2 of us, out of practice, tossing those lines up the big locks was HARD work! 
At one point, we had to enlist the help of 2 kids passing by on bikes.


After the first one, the locks also went smoothly. 
Slowly in - and slowly out - of them. 


At one lock, the lock keeper said - there was an accident up ahead. 
A rental boat had SUNK - in the lock. 
They needed a crane to get it out.

The boat in the lock wasn't the only one that had sunk-
So we moored overnight. 
Waited for the backlog of boats to clear the following morning.
(Like everything else in France, the locks CLOSE for lunch.)

Sometimes we found a bollard, sometimes we hammered stakes into the ground. 
In all, we handled 14 locks, 50 bridges, 8 days of cruising.


In summary, Maggie May handles well. 
She doesn't make sudden changes. 
She requires CONSTANT vigilance. 
You have to plan your turns WELL in advance.

But: she's eminently manageable, once you get used to her. 


But: Every day, we were sore and tired after hours of full concentration.
Avoiding reckless rental boats.
Securing moorings. Managing locks and lines. 
Learning all sorts of new stuff.

Dinner on the aft deck helped. Usually one of Stan's stellar salads.
Yes, we had our usual wine with meals. 
But - the emergency bottle of Armagnac that we brought along came in very handy. 

Just in case.






05 September 2017

Solar Panels on the Boat - And they're GREAT!


Maggie May - just before the solar panels arrive. They'll go on the upper roof.

Look at the setup - doesn't it look totally streamlined?
Like the system came with the boat originally?


We thought we'd be drilling all sorts of holes through the roof. 
- Cables all over the interior.
But no - it looks GREAT.

The mounting corners are glued with a silicon glue. No holes.

This is the first time either Stan or I have had a solar energy system. 
We've both been interested in it over the years - since the late 60's, really. 

For one reason or another, it was never practical.
But now we're thinking:
It really works well - everyone should use solar energy!

Ok, everyone on a boat, at least.
Boats already have the battery bank, right?

The bank of batteries - in the required battery box.

It took us a long time to figure out what we needed. 
How it would work. 
We were starting from scratch.
I wanted to understand it thoroughly.

All these diagrams and watts and amps and volts.
12v vs. 220v. Direct and alternating current.

The wiring behind the helm. 

One of the technicians - the agent from Viktron - said it succinctly:
"A solar power system is a balance - between production - storage - and - usage."

That's it in a nutshell. 

We had to figure out what our requirements are.
We had no idea, really.

- How many amp hours does the fridge use? 
- What's the wattage on a laptop? 
- Are ALL the cabin lights LED?


Trish in the galley, while the guys inspect the engine room.

Then - how to run the cables invisibly - from the roof of the boat - to the battery bank in the engine room? Since the carpentry on the boat is particularly tight, and has no visible nails or screws - this wasn't easy.

Stan and the Viktron guy try to find a way through the A/C unit. Not possible.

Here's the technical details of our system:

4 solar panels of 150 W each.
They fit nicely on the roof, with enough space for us to walk between them.

A 100w/50 amp MPPT controller - the brains of the system.

MPPT controller - next to the (older) battery charger.

2 monitors - one for the battery, one for the solar panels


We already have 3 12-volt house batteries of 125 amp hours each on the boat.

- Plus one for the engine. 
- And another one for the generator.

The solar panels just charge the house batteries. 

These new solar panels are really efficient.
They don't have to be angled to follow the sun's path. 
They work even when it's pretty shady, or when part of the panels are covered.

2 small holes for the cables.

And on the first day, we were TOTALLY charged up - by 9 am.
-Wow.

So now - we can charge the computers, phones - and run the fridge (we've been turning it off every night-) and the batteries are charged higher than we've been able to get them all summer.

- Without running the generator or the engine.
- Or having to plug in to shore power.

So - the system is working better than we expected.
(If you live in a house, connected to 220v, this may not seem like such a big deal.
On a boat, it really IS a big deal!)

You know...the boat also has a second fridge. 
We haven't turned it on yet.
Up until now, one small fridge has totally depleted our batteries every night. 

Night time on the canal - time to turn the fridge off.

But now - who knows?
A little luxury?

We may use the second fridge - just for chilling the wine.



27 August 2017

Getting a French Visa




Off to the big city of Montpelier to finalize our French visa. 
This is a Big Deal, and the Final Chapter (I hope!) in the long process of obtaining a visa that will allow us to stay in France for as long as we want.

But - it hasn't been easy. 
France LOVES its bureaucracy. 
There are lots of administrative hoops to jump through. 
Anyone who has been through this process knows what we mean. 

The "Mairie", or Town Hall, in our local village, Poilhes.

It involved:
 - 2 flights to the French consulate in Los Angeles.
- 2 medical exams.
 - Lost applications.
- Interview at the Préfecture in France after arrival.

And - a DAUNTING list of required documents - originals and 1 copy of each. 
Here's the first list:

- OFII application form, signed and completed
- 2 passport photos, correct size and color
- valid passport, plus copy of identifying page
- visa processing fee of 250 € (must be paid online)
- proof of US citizenship
- proof of NM residency (this wasn't easy!)

- OFII residency form, duly completed
- e-ticket or reservation confirmation showing date of departure

- letter of statement of purpose, signed and notarized
- letter promising not to engage in gainful employment while in France, signed and notarized
- letter of employment in US - occupation and proof of earnings
- proof of financial means, excluding investments - only liquid funds
- last 2 bank statements
- investment portfolio, recent statements
- pension statement if applicable
- IRA or retirement statements if officially retired

- proof of medical insurance
- travel insurance for entire travel period, zero deductible (!), $50,000 minimum
- proof of accommodation in France, title deeds, utility bills or lease agreements
- and - 
- a self-addressed Fedex express air bill with tracking number


Only a very few of the required docs.


The difficult one - was proving our address in France. 
It's a deal-breaker if you don't have that. 
Usually, all you need is a copy of a recent utility bill with your name on it.
Or a landlord's signature on a lease contract. 

A nearby winery. If THIS were our house, getting the visa would have been easier.

However, "Maggie May" generates her own power. 
We don't HAVE a utility bill. 
And we have a mooring contract, not a lease.

So - does the canal authority qualify as a landlord? 
Questionable. It's going to take some explaining.

The "Office" at our residence.

So I add MORE documents to the pile:

- Mooring contract.
- Statement of mooring fees.
- Receipt for payment of mooring fees. 
- Bill of sale for Maggie May, in French and in English.
- Boat registration with the French authorities.
- Boat insurance.
- French bank account, showing our mooring location as our address.
- French telephone bills, showing French bank account.

But: There was another problem. 
We needed a lease / rental contract for a year. 
But the canal authority only issues the mooring contracts every 6 months.

So I got the Harbor Master at the Capitainerie to provide me with an extra contract. 
For this season AND for the upcoming season. 
It wasn't signed yet, but - we hoped it would work.

The "Capitainerie" at Capestang.
At the French consulate in the US, you make the appointment online. 
You can't call them to ask questions. They do not respond to emails. 
You are given an appointment and you must turn up on time. 

After a canceled flight, stress, and rescheduling for the following week, we decided to stay overnight in LA before the appointment. Then a missing rental car - quickly hailing a passing taxi to make our appointment - and past heavy security to the consulate.
(There's a longer story here, but this is already quite long enough.)

Fortunately, the administrator we met in the LA office grew up near the Canal du Midi. 
He understood immediately about barges and mooring contracts. Hooray! 

The French consulate administrator grew up along the Canal du Midi.

On arriving in France, I sent our documents off to the French authorities as instructed. Originals, plus one copy, plus application form plus proof of entry into France and date. After several weeks, I received notification of my interview appointment, and the date for my medical exam. 
However: Nothing arrived for Stan.

After numerous calls and much worry, since they were adamant that the ORIGINAL signed documents must be presented, I finally spoke to someone who rummaged through the piles - and found Stan's file. (whew!) This took lots of calls - in French - with explanations.

(Talking on the phone in a foreign language is always difficult.)
(Getting someone to answer the phone in a French government office is also difficult.)

She made an appointment for both of us - in another month's time (which was by now August). 
Both of us on the same day. At the same time. 
Cool. 

Eventually the day came. 

We get into our little rental car and - GO!

Since the appointment was at 8 am in Montpelier, a city about 90 minutes from us, we decided to go the night before and stay overnight, to be sure to get to our first meeting on time. 
We chose a hotel close to the Préfecture, so we could walk there. 


Unfortunately, the medical exam wasn't actually AT the Préfecture.  
It was somewhere down near the train station. 
-Glad we decided to check out the exact address the night before. 

Montpelier is actually quite a pleasant city.
Stepping over a number of homeless characters and weaving through several of their shopping carts, we climbed to the radiology office. A security guard checked our papers. 

A couple dozen people were also there, all nationalities. We were all given chest x-rays, efficiently and quickly. Everyone got their x-ray envelopes and left for the next stage of the process. 
Except me.

Finally, the radiologist called me and wanted to talk to me about my x-ray. 

"So, you're a heavy smoker?" 
"No, I don't smoke." 
"But you used to?"
"No, I never smoked. At all."
"Hm. But - you are coughing a lot, yes?"
"No, I don't cough - why?"
He looked at me skeptically.
"You have bronchitis. Pretty severe.
And - you know you have a broken rib, right?"
"No! Broken rib? Are you SURE that's MY x-ray?"

Well, we left the office in total dejection. I was sure I'd failed the medical exam! 
And I feel PERFECTLY healthy! And I don't know anything about a broken rib!


I couldn't believe it. 
To have gone through all this - and not pass the x-ray? 
You gotta be kidding me. 
I bicycle, I scuba, I do yoga - I'm healthy!



But we went to the next appointment anyway. Two doctors interviewed Stan and me together. 
One of the doctors put my chart up on a light wall, and said, 
"Yes, it's definitely broken. It doesn't hurt? Usually, a broken rib is quite painful." 

I told her I didn't even know which side it's supposed to be on. 
Then I carefully asked about the bronchitis. 

"Do you have a doctor in France? If so, you should visit towards the end of the year. Take this x-ray and compare it with the next one. If it's not improving, then you'll have to do something."
"So, does that mean I'm okay for the visa?"
"I don't see why not. Just have it checked out in a few months." 

YAY!


The final interview, one more. 
Soon, the official full-page visa is stuck into the passports. 
We're now OFFICIAL. 
And MAN, that was a LOT of work! 

No wonder people celebrate so much after they acquire a new nationality (A German friend of ours recently received his US citizenship-) - and this was just a long term visa!



I'd say this deserves a small glass of celebratory wine.

- Even if I DO have a broken rib.