22 August 2010

Adventures in Andorra with the Mysterious Italian Bikers

Although I have spread my wings and left the Italians' nest after a week, we have kept in contact, emailing back and forth, making several shopping trips for the new apartment, and now, a trip to Andorra in the sidecar of their motorcycle!

I donned a magenta helmet and climbed into the sidecar, Luigi revved the engine and cranked up Duke Ellington, and Cetina lithely mounted behind him, dressed in a miniskirt and black boots. We set off through the streets of Toulouse, passers-by staring at us. I must admit I enjoyed the attention. To be part of their world, even for one trip, was like being in a film. I laughed out loud at the sheer craziness of the situation. One week prior, I was friendless and windowless in Toulouse, crying my eyes out... Look at me know! Not only do I have a visa and a new apartment, I'm riding in the sidecar of a motorcycle, careening through the Pyrénées mountains with two mysterious Italian authors!

Setting off from Toulouse, we were very soon in the mountains, a breathtaking sight to behold, even without snow in the heat of summer. We paused for a quick paella in a tiny French village in the mountains, and were soon in the tiny nation of Andorra.

Landlocked between France and Spain, Andorra is the 6th smallest country in Europe, known for being a tourist attraction and a tax haven. The reason behind our trip, I came to learn, was that Luigi wanted to restock on duty-free cigarettes. Catalan is the official language, although French and Spanish are widely understood.

I must admit that I was disappointed by the tawdriness of the cities of Pas de la Casa and Andorra la Vella (the capital.) The appearance of the shops and architecture was very cheap, and dare I say, UGLY. Framed by the majestic Pyrénées, these cities seemed ridiculously out of place. However, if you can spend as little time as possible in the cities, and immerse yourself in the savage natural beauty, Andorra is a paradise of jagged rock formations, green hills, and an abundance of precariously perched grazing sheep and goats wearing bells around their necks. This is easily some of the most dramatic scenery I have ever seen in my life.

The complicity of Cetina and Luigi is admirable. They have no need to communicate with words. They clearly are accustomed to spending hours and days at a time on the road, and of course conversation is impossible with the roar of the motor. And yet, observing them, they are in constant contact. A touch of a gloved hand, a pointed finger, a nod, a gesture indicating a desire to full over... they function seamlessly. Dressed head to toe in black, speaking French in rolling Italian accents, they truly belong in a movie. The sturdiness of Luigi is complemented by the delicate frame of Cetina, whose long curly hair is untamable even under a helmet... there is an artistic quality that I recognize in these two, and one of these days I will have to paint a watercolor portrait of them.

After a long day of hunting for duty free cigarettes, motorcycle accessories, and fuel, we shared a lovely meal (and several sangrias between Cetina and I) in Andorra la Vella before heading back to Toulouse. While most bikers have a reputation for being speed demons, Luigi drove steadily, handling hairpin turns with grace. A gentle rain began to fall, but I felt secure enough to drift off to sleep, despite the blaring blues CD and roaring motor.

It's amazing the difference a few short days and a few amazing new friends can make for one's morale. I am feeling more confident about my new life in Toulouse.

Cetina and Luigi serve a much higher purpose than simply renting me a room for a week. Whether they realize it or not, they have saved me from my own self-doubts and despair. What may have been just a cigarette run for them has been one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.

20 August 2010

New Apartment in Toulouse

After three solid days of panicked apartment hunting, I am happy to report that I have found a new chez moi! The new place is steps away from Place Capitole, and a two minute walk from the university where I will be working. The new place is tiny, but not without a certain charm, that comes mainly from the enormous window that provides a view of the tower of Saint Jacobin, a 13th century Dominican church that houses the mortal remains of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

I wanted to reserve the apartment on the spot, but the landlord said he had a few more interviews to conduct before he decided. My heart sank. I wondered if my being a foreigner made me an undesirable candidate...

Two days later, I hadn't heard from him, and worked up the nerve to call him. "Excusez-moi de vous déranger, Monsieur. I know you told me you would call me back when you made your decision, but I just wanted to know that I really really want the apartment, and I will take really good care of it, I promise!"

After a long pause, he responded "OK," with a trace of amusement in his voice. I wonder if he waiting this long to make me squirm!

I breathed a sigh of relief that was audible over the phone. "Oh, thank you! You have no idea how hard I have been searching!" I prattled on senselessly, and somehow he got a word in edgewise to make a date to sign the contract.

My appointment for the signing of the contract was August 10 at noon.

Two hours later was my Visa appointment at the Préfecture.

At my appointment, the clerk smirked when she saw the date of my apartment contract. "Just made it, eh?" she said.

I shudder to imagine what would have happened if I had no address for my visa appointment...

That major hurdle out of the way, I can now concentrate on my enjoyable things, like decorating. The Italians took me shopping in their Sidecar, and helped me move my luggage as well. I cannot begin to express my gratitude to them!

The apartment is a tiny studio, yet I have managed to make it my own with an Indian rug, posters, and decorations from my travels.

To celebrate, the Italians have proposed a day trip to Andorra, in the sidecar, of course!

09 August 2010

Apartment Hunting and the Mysterious Italian Bikers

After a single night in the god-forsaken apartment from hell, things are looking up. I could not stay there another moment, and spent the entire day scouring the internet for potential places to live. I have quite a deadline, considering my visa appointment is in a few days, and I absolutely must have a permanent address to prove residency! I haven’t found a permanent apartment yet, but I’ve found temporary relief in an Italian couple who rents out a room in their beautiful Toulousain apartment on a short term basis. From the tranquility of their apartment, I can sleep insect-free, and also search for an apartment with use of their phone and WIFI connection.

I’ve been with them a few days. They are a lovely couple named Cetina and Luigi. They speak a very sing-song French, rolling all the R’s in typical Italian style. From what I’ve gathered, they do not work. I noticed they sleep quite late, and never seem to be going off to work. I asked what they did for a living, and Cetina replied, « We’re authors. We travel the world on our motorcycles and write about our adventures. » I asked them how many books they had published, and Cetina declared “This will be the first one, when it’s finished.” I did not want to push the issue of how they could afford to travel the world on their numerous expensive motorcycles, live in an affluent apartment in downtown Toulouse, and wear exquisite leather outfits... so I smiled and told her how much I admired them as a couple.... they are in their mid-forties, too young to be retired... Their income is a mystery.

They have shown me photos of their numerous trips. They have travelled throughout Europe exclusively on their motorcycle complete with sidecar. Not just your standard Western Europe. We’re talking far-flung places like Bulgaria, Latvia, and Serbia, and the Ukraine. They’ve been everywhere. They have even traveled to tip of Southern Spain, where they took their vehicle on the ferry to Morocco, and travelled throughout Africa. It’s really incredible.

They’ve been very lovely in helping me find a new place... I was too shy to phone my landlord of the hell-hole apartment to ask for my deposit, so Cetina took the phone from my hand, and very eloquently informed him that his residence was in shameful unhygienic conditions, and that HER CLIENT must be reimbursed for her deposit in a timely manner. I expected a protest from the landlord, but he really must have believed he was speaking to a lawyer, because he relented immediately and agreed to pay me back.

Additionally, as we all recall with my recent laptop disaster I was dealing with an 800 euro hole in my pocket due to the repair costs I had to shell out. Maurice was not returning my calls and I had lost all hope of getting my bill reimbursed. I had phoned his insurance company, who informed me that because I did not carry my own personal insurance, I had no possibility of recuperating the expenses, and that they could not help me. Cetina advised me to write a letter to his insurance company, and assisted me in the wording, ensuring I express candidly the emotional distress it had caused. I have no idea if anything will come from it, but I appreciate the effort she took to help me in so many ways. I adore her persistent attitude. She’s just relentless!

I’m channeling her energy as I hunt for my apartment.

I’ve been searching like mad. My strategy:

1. Search websites like www.crij.org and www.seloger.fr for apartment ads. Go to local Crous office and edge your way into the crowd of fellow apartment searchers copying down the newest ads on the bulletin board and hope no one else is writing down the same ones. Mark ones with potential.

2. Phone and make appointments to see the apartments. Only a small fraction of them will even answer, as this is a competitive time of year to be finding apartments, as students will be starting university this fall.

3. Circle the locations on map, and hit the streets.

4. Meet with various landlords who will show the apartment, which most of the time is a big disappointment.

5. Start back at step 1. Rinse, lather, repeat.

Naturally by now, I have a very good understanding of the layout of Toulouse, seeing how I’ve been everywhere on foot in my search. made a lot of progress, I’ve looked at 10 apartments the past few days, and they were either in a dangerous neighborhood, too far away from the city center, or their was an OCD roommate who reminded me of Hélène and her endless demands for neatness beyond human comprehension.

In the meantime, I’m staying in one of the most beautiful apartments I’ve ever seen with a fantastic couple that I get along swimmingly with. I keep fantasizing about living with them, but I know it’s only a short-term rental...


The clock is ticking, the date of my Visa Appointment is nearly here, and I absolutely must have an address....

Doubts in myself are rapidly returning.

07 August 2010

Déjà vu...yet another housing disaster

A lonely, unliveable new room... A forlorn dinner in a fast food restaurant... crying my eyes out thinking I’ve made the biggest mistake of my life...

Sounds a lot like my first night in Metz nearly a year ago... But Hélas, this really is happening again.

This time, the city is Toulouse, about as far from Metz as humanly possible. The new language is French... with a Toulousan accent. The lonely apartment is really a studio infested with cockroaches, bedbugs (AGAIN !) and mysterious black hairs and a thick layer of dust blanketing every surface. I opened the fridge, greeted by a scurrying roach and the sight of mold. More friendly roaches are eager to make my acquaintance in the shared shower, which also boasts a mold laden shower curtain. The stench of urine dominates the alley where my apartment stands, looking more dilapidated than I remember only about a month ago. What was I thinking when i signed the contract to this dump ?

Oh yeah... 280 euros a month. Thisclose to down-town attractions and métro stop. And the biggest reason... MANDATORY address, copy of rent payment, and attestation of domicile in order to renew my visa to work in France this year... I had only two days in Toulouse to obtain my work approval and find residence... I did what I could.

Now my skin is crawling and I’m paying for it.

I scoured the internet (which of course is missing from my apartment despite my landlord’s promise.) for other apartments. Hours of searching and phone calls later, I have made no progress.

Everything is either already rented, too expensive, or the contact simply won’t respond.

Why am I sacrificing precious moments with my fiancé, family, and friends... to live here ?

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