Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Thunder, rain and lightning in Provence

The thunder started around 3am this morning - low growls in the distance for a while and then one ear-splitting thunderbolt right above the house.

Storms often build and then break during the night in Provence. I could see flashes of lightning outside around the edges of the bedroom's closed wooden shutters. The thunder was deafening but in between bolts you could hear rain hammering down on the tiled roof, pine trees and hard dry earth. I knew from experience that the next sound would be the catflap as my cat Coco, who wondered out of the forest and up to the house 4 years ago and never left, hurtled into the house in protest at the rain.

Sure enough - flap flap flap, determined feline shoulder applied to half-closed bedroom door - and I felt him jump on the bed. As I told him to calm down and go to sleep, I felt half-terrified that the roof would fall in or the house would be struck by lightning. It was hit by lightning in 2007 and I was momentarily electrocuted as I tried to disconnect the water pump. The electrics in most rural French houses, as you probably know, are fairly funky and improvised arrangements. In this house, the water pump needs to be disconnected during a thunderstorm or apparently it'll be struck by lightning. The plug that needs to be disconnected hangs on a thick cable half way up a wall. To uncouple plug and socket I have to lie on the tiles with a foot against the wall and tug, using both hands. It works well enough...

Anyway, as well as being half-terrified I was half-thrilled. One of my neighbours, a paysan, Alain Blanc, who has 10 hectares of vines, cherry trees, melons, apricots and almonds just over the hill had told me it would rain during the night and the following morning. I'd been aware that if he was wrong I'd have to lug the hosepipe up to my olive trees to water them. We've had a week of temperatures in the high 30s and though the olive tree flowers have now given way to miniscule olives, they're looking parched and need water.

The lavender round the house and the oleanders look thirsty too so it was great to hear the rain tombant des cordes - "fall in ropes", as the Provencaux say.

This morning the rain fell very lightly and the dawn chorus was beautiful. Little songbirds who've been suffering in the heat must be delighted to find raindrops rolling off every leaf. Even Coco, who could have sat inside in the dry, strolled through the damp garrigue and then settled under an olive tree to survey his land. He doesn't usually try to catch songbirds - he understands that they can take off almost vertically whereas mice can't. He once dragged a beautiful dormouse into the house. Don't know how he got him - they usually stay up in the tree canopy.

There's a beautiful stillness outside just now. Not even a light breeze. Just the revived land, damp and looking much greener after the storm.

I worked with Mr Blanc and a neighbour in his vineyard for 2 days this week. It was sweltering - 37° - and I managed 2 hours in the morning and 2 in the afternoon. It was heavy work in blazing, merciless sunshine. Not a drop of shade either. He'd had a machine uproot the hundreds of vine stumps and needed the field cleared to prepare the earth and plant a new variety of grape. In return for helping him I'd get masses of vine stumps which are a good winter fuel and don't need to be seasoned for two years like other wood. So I can use them this winter. He knew the rain would come today so he needed to clear the field urgently, while the tractor and trailer could move freely on the soil. I asked how he knew it would rain. He'd looked at the meteo in La Provence perhaps? He shrugged. He's been working that land he said since he was nine years old. Sometimes you just know it'll rain in the next 24 to 36 hours.

I just went outside to say hello to a friend riding by on his horse. Wonderful morning isn't it, he said. "Quelle fraicheur!" We talked for a while and then I came back to my desk. I noticed another benefit of the rain while I was outside. My car, perpetually covered in white limestone dust from the chemin de terre, sometimes so heavy that the police have stopped me to tell me the licence plate is invisible, looked like it had been through a carwash. It stood there bright and sparkling and clean, thanks to the rain.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

French health care - great if you can get it

France has a great health system. Everyone says so. Not everyone is entitled to use it freely though. You have to be entitled and in the system - and that means having a social security number. Although I've lived in France for years and have been entitled to a Carte Vitale - the medical insurance/entitlement card - for a year and a half, I've only just succeeded in getting hold of the social security number, or numero secu needed to get one. The reason? France has fiendish administration. Everyone says so.

When I first moved to France I was working for a vast American corporation, spending a lot of my time on planes and in airports. Because I was away from France about as much as I was here I didn't bother too much about the Carte Vitale. I retained UK health insurance and hoped for the best. It was only when I finally registered as an autoentrepreneuse (self-employed) in June 2009, that I decided to apply for a Carte Vitale.

My accountant airily told me it would arrive automatically "in a few weeks" since I was registered as a business and paying taxes.

When it didn't arrive - quelle surprise - he advised me to contact the local tax office in town. The young woman there looked blank and told me to contact URSAFF, the French social security outfit, in Avignon. URSAFF in Avignon sent me to a strange little office in what seemed to be a block of flats where a lone staff member told me to contact RSI in Paris. "You definitely need to deal with RSI," she told me. RSI is the French 'social regime' for independent workers. They ignored me for a year and a half. Or rather, after sending me a registration number, they ignored me for a year and a half.

I emailed RSI in Paris just over 40 times - sad I know, but I started counting after the first half dozen times. I called them countless more times and got personnel who said they couldn't deal with me unless I gave them my numero secu. "That's the problem," I said. "I don't know it." They shrugged, telephonically. I sent them letters. "What do I need to do to obtain my social security number and Carte Vitale?" I asked. I wondered when they would ever reply. The answer, as with the emails, was never.

I lost count of the different numbers and organisations I rang in my efforts to find out that number. "Call this number in Provence," someone in Paris would say. "Call this number in Paris," the person in Provence would say. It was entirely circular. I gave up for weeks at a time.

One number in Provence played an eternal message that the service wasn't available. One had severely restricted opening hours - about 12 a week - and I never got through to anyone there. Another number parrotted the "Contact Paris" mantra. Yet another simply rang out. Always.

After 18 months I finally discovered my secu number. It was by chance really. I spent three solid hours calling everyone in French health administration and eventually someone, somewhere, casually mentioned an organism called RAM-GAMEX. I'd never heard of them. I got their number and called. After half an hour of muzak and the occasional cheery message telling me how much I was being charged for waiting, a woman answered. I asked her, simply, what I had to do to get a social security number. She asked for my RSI number, tapped it into a database and said "Well there's absolutely no problem with it, madame - I can give it to you now. Do you have pen?" A pen? I nearly had a fainting fit. I was euphoric and amazed.

"But I've been trying to get this number for a year and a half," I said. "I haven't been able to get my Carte Vitale..."

She sounded rather insulted. "All you had to do was ask!" she said snippily.

I wrote my number down carefully. Then I wrote it down in six other places. Then I called a friend to say I'd finally succeeded. I'd won! I'd beaten the French administration. They'd tried to beat me down but I'd perservered. I felt like a marathon runner, breasting that flimsy tape and brushing it aside.

But I know I'm still only halfway there. I have since received a Carte Vitale attestation and my numero secu but I don't yet have the actual Carte Vitale. When the woman at RAM-GAMEX told me how to apply for it, she added scarily: "It'll arrive automatically in a few weeks." Yes - I've heard that before.