I remember a rather surprising number of years ago, when I was a young adult and first became interested in my family origins. It may have been shortly after my mother's parents had passed away. One day, my mother showed me a document of many pages that had been written on the history of my grandfather's family.

At the time, it didn't seem to me to be a very scholarly work because there were no references made to contributing materials. To me, it almost read like a story that could have easily been fabricated. According to the work, the family had Scottish origins and their name had been changed from the original name of MacLaughn. Years later, when I had the opportunity to go to Scotland, and knowing that almost all Scottish last names have an associated tartan, I was going through a catalog of them and couldn't find any mention of the name MacLaughn. The experience made me even more doubtful.

Fast forward several years when I started to become interested in my father's side of the family. I don't remember exactly when or why. I had at some point, learned from my parents that my aunt on that side of the family had been doing some family genealogy. I remember strolling through Windmill Island with the family and coming across a map of the Netherlands. Growing up in a town that began as a Dutch immigrant settlement I had never doubted that my father's family was Dutch. I had read, or had had read to me, the story of Hans Brinker and the silver skates. Of course in the story, Hans is definitely from Holland in the old country and his name is not too different from Brink.

[Side note : as I'm writing this I'm learning that the story was actually written by an American children's writer who hadn't any experience of the Netherlands before writing the story.]

I mean, after all, everyone from Holland, Michigan was obviously of Dutch origin weren't they. I believe almost all of my friends were. There were also Ten Brinks and Van den Brinks. But that day at Windmill Island is when I remember discovering that the Brinks were in fact from Germany - albeit from a town just across the border from the Netherlands called Nordhorn.

I was somewhat intrigued by this because I had studied the German language, worked for a Germany company, and lived in or was living at the time in Germany.

Shortly after I forgot the name of the town, and didn't develop a real interest in the subject until my aunt passed away. I became concerned that the work she had done to trace the family history might become lost. So I wrote a letter to my uncle at the end of last Summer, asking him to send me any information he could. He ended up speaking to my mother and out of these exchanges came the first information about my ancestors in Germany. One question which was developing in my mind was whether my ancestor who immigrated to the US did so for religious or economic reasons. I vaguely knew the story of the first immigrants who established Holland, Michigan as a Dutch colony, primarily in seeking religious freedom. I knew less of those who came after having more worldly needs.

About the same time, I started to do a little research of my own and discovered a book that had been written in German about the immigrants from Nordhorn and the surrounding lands who had come to West Michigan. I was able to purchase a copy. I also ran across a book with a similar theme but written in English. The two books were related by a common co-author by the name of Swenna Harger, a resident of Holland, Michigan. As it turns out, my aunt had also visited Mrs. Harger in her search for information on the Brink genealogy. Furthermore, I contacted the Church in Nordhorn to see if they could provide me any information on the births and deaths of the Brinks.

All of these efforts contributed to my developing understanding of this branch of my family tree. The German book I obtained had references to the same persons described by my uncle, and the Church in Nordhorn was also able to confirm the same information while providing a valuable clue to my ancestor's occupation. They were described as "landbouwer", which I interpret as peasants.

In December I was back in Holland and had the opportunity to meet Mrs. Harger with my Mother. I wanted to know why my ancestors had immigrated. Was it for religious, or economic reasons? Or even for seeking adventure? Well I learned quite a lot from Mrs. Harger, and the book she had co-authored and which I was able to obtain from her, to give me some ideas about the reason.

[ add comment ] ( 37 views ) permalink
Why am I now living in France? 

Asnières-sur-Seine, France

Yesterday, I picked up my long awaited Carte de Resident from the Prefecture in Nanterre. It puts an end to having to renew my working permit every year. The Nanterre Prefecture is not a particularly exciting place to be and I'm happy not to have to return there mutiple times during the year.

Along with the acquisition of the 10 year residence permit comes the opportunity of a longer term vision for the future. For most of the years since working in France for the first time in 1995 (that's nearly 20 years ago!) I've needed to follow the ritual of renewing residence permits and working papers every year.

But as I try looking forward I'm compelled first to look backwards. What brought me to where I am now? Why am I in France?

What I can think of is that it begins at the moment in High School when I got tired of learning German and decided to take French during my senior year. And French only because of the reputation of "Madame" Donnelly for making the class fun. I was looking for something fun and I enjoyed that class that year, without thinking at all about doing anything more with French. I was terribly pragmatic in college and decided to continue German studies in order to fulfill my language requirement for graduation with the least amount of effort.

Later, after graduation from college, with a yearning for adventure, I decided to go into the Peace Corps. And as, as a result of French colonial heritage, there were far more French speaking developing countries than German speaking, my one year of French language study in High School was enough to send me to French West Africa.

Even though my mission in Africa was linked to the English speaking region of Cameroon, because Cameroon is bi-lingual, I followed the French language course required of all volunteers there. I loved the French language training as it was organized and conceived by the Peace Corps, and although I did not go on to finish my mission in Cameroon, I came away from the experience with a latent inspiration to continue pursuing French in an international context.

Back in Michigan in the early 90s I decided to further my education, learn something about the practical world of commerce, immerse myself as far as I could in the French language, and have an adventure that I had a better chance of seeing through than my experience with the Peace Corps.

So off I went to Brussels for a year and some months to do a Master's in International Business while continuing to study French in local courses offered by the French speaking Belgian community. And this time, I made it through my adventure with enough interest in living abroad to attempt to find a job in Europe. Which I did!. And that first job experience working in France in the town of Orléans led to living experiences in Paris, followed by a return to Michigan, followed by a return to Paris, four years in Stuttgart, and now another five years in France. Well, an awful lot of moving around to say the least.

So that, briefly, is how I ended up today, in France. It was not exactly a life long aspiration, but one that developed over the course of a series of experiences.

And now I have less of an excuse for remaining a vagabond. But are the patterns now too entrenched?
[ add comment ] ( 11 views ) permalink
Purchasing a Home in France - Part III (Taking the plunge - The Notary, the Agent, and the Broker) 

Chantilly, France

I reckon that in real estate transactions just about anywhere in the world, there is a basic human need to involve a neutral third party to act as a referee between the buyer and the seller. It must have something to do with the relatively large sums of money changing hands between individuals, the sentimental importance attached to ones place of dwelling, and the resulting emotions which can potentially run high between the parties.

In France, the role of the neutral third party is the exclusive domain of the notary.

My guidebook pointed out that a notary, as an agent of the French state, does not necessarily work in the interest of the buyer. It further cautioned that the notary does not verify or guarantee the accuracy of statements made by the seller or protect the buyer against fraud. Reading this made me uneasy and uncertain whether I needed to hire an additional party that I could look to for some advocacy such as a lawyer. Karine took a more positive view of the notary and saw the hiring of a lawyer as an unnecessary expense and I eventually relented.

Coming from North America, I was more familiar with the term "notary public" and made the mistake of confusing the two disciplines. In the U.S., I had had the occasion of calling upon the services of a notary public when I needed to have my signature notarized for some official document. I got the impression then that carrying out the function of a notary was something people did in addition to an unrelated full-time job which allowed one to supplement one's income. I did a quick check on the internet and discovered that I was confusing the role of a public notary which, from what I gather, is basically an Anglo-Saxon concept with that of a civil-law notary which is more common in Latin based cultures such as France and is more closely related to the legal profession.

We accepted the seller's proposition to work with his notary as we hadn't any other recommendation for a notary in relative proximity to the location of the apartment. We decided that hiring our own notary to work with the sellers notary was unnecessary and would only serve to complicate and slow down the purchase process.

By sending our e-mail to the realtor on Sunday, we had effectively set in motion the process of buying the apartment. The notary needed some time to draw up the compromis de vente which sets out in legal terms the identities of the parties, the description of the property, the selling price, the selling fees (which go to the notary for services rendered), the agent's commission and the obligations of the buyer and the seller towards each other including the financing plans of the buyer. The signing of the compromis de vente is accompanied by a substantial deposit which commits the buyer to follow through or forfeit the deposit unless certain exceptional conditions are met.

I couldn't say I understand why, but setting out the value of any furniture sold with property in the compromis de vente has the effect of reducing the notary's fees and is very much in the interest of the buyer.

Five days after our first visit of the apartment, we were sitting at the table with the owners, the notary, and the agent and signed the compromis de vente after having gone over it in detail. One check with a deposit against the selling price on the order of ten percent and a second check with an advance on the selling fees are made out to and handed over to the notary at this time.

There is often a "cooling off" period associated with the signing of contracts in France and the compromis de vente is no exception. The buyer has seven days starting from the delivery of the registered letter from the notary. But I never really thought twice about what I had signed up for and the deadline came and went without any regrets.

The compromis de vente describes the property, the buyers financing plan, sets out the obligations of the seller towards the buyer and vice versa. I based the financing plan on a simulation I had made with my bank a few weeks earlier in trying to determine my credit worthiness in France. The interest rate the bank proposed was not the most attractive and the real estate agent realized quickly that there were better financing options and directed me to a broker that she was familiar with.

After signing the compromis de vente, obtaining financing becomes very important because written into the contract is a deadline which must be met for obtaining a financing offer from a bank. In my case, I had a deadline of February 13 to secure financing or risk losing my deposit - not a negligible amount of money.

But by now Christmas had come and I needed to make the annual trip back to the US to spend a week with my family. But I was back in time to start the new year in France. Karine and I had made an appointment to meet with the broker in the first days of the new year.

The broker did, in fact, come up with a financing proposition that was more promising than anything previously proposed by my bank or could be matched by Karine's. As a secondary strategy, I also made an inquiry at an organization recommended by my company which provided a similar service to the broker and were thus able to make a comparison between multiple propositions.

In organizing financing, you need to be prepared to give out a lot of personal data to financial institutions including bank account statements, pay statements, proof of residence, passport and residence permit, past tax declarations, information on ongoing loans, and also a copy of the compromis de vente.

We needed to sign a mandate with the broker and pay fees in escrow. We learned that in obtaining financing it's important to be aware of all of the costs of borrowing money especially those in addition to the interest rate such as insurance costs
[ add comment ] ( 14 views ) permalink
Purchasing a Home in France - Part II (A Find) 

Chantilly, France

We had started our search in late July and by the time November rolled around, were wondering if we would find anything we liked. A month or so into our search, I decided it might be a good idea to purchase a book written in English about the steps involved in buying a home in France. Because France is a destination sought out by enough Britons as a place to buy their dream house, you can find reasonably informative literature on the topic. The book I chose and ordered on the internet was written by an author well known in the Paris anglophone journalistic circles with plenty of years of experience in the country, I can't say my experience matched completely with the account given in his book, especially concerning the role of the "notaire" which I'll come to a bit later. But the advice was good enough to boost my confidence in my ability to go through with the project.

As luck would have it, at the end of another tiring day of visits we stumbled across something interesting. It was an apartment on the fourth floor of an attractive limestone clad apartment complex built only ten years previously on the left bank of the Seine. It was oriented south-east and south-west with correspondingly good exposure to sunlight. It had one flaw, an express route separating the apartment building from the park that is best known for its pet cemetery but which also runs along the Seine at this location. Another park on the other side of the express route insured plenty of greenery could be seen during the warmer months. I was able to overlook the express route, Karine less so. For me, the route had the advantage of whisking me rapidly away out of town during the morning commute.

The apartment was within easy walking distance to the week-end market with the added surprise of the sight of a lovely Renaissance castle to be taken in along the way. In the other direction one soon ran into "little Morocco" adding a little ethnic spice to the neighborhood. We decided it was time to end our search, resigned to the fact that we would probably never find something that matched all of our criteria and worried about losing out once again to another buyer.

We visited the apartment on Saturday, and after some hesitation and soul searching ended up sending our offer at very close to the asking price to the realtor Sunday evening. The offer was accepted on Monday and we moved onto the next step, a rendez-vous at the "notaire" where we were to put down a deposit and sign the "Compromis de Vente", the first contractual engagement on the road to ownership.
[ add comment ] ( 12 views ) permalink
Purchasing a Home in France - Part I (The Search) 

Chantilly, France

After four years of living in Chantilly it is time for a change. I've decided to become more social, let's just say I want to experiment in communal living in a manner of speaking. In July my significant other and I decided to make a plan to live together. Her apartment in Paris, at fifty square meters, sadly runs counter to my American inclination towards vast open spaces. But seriously, I do feel the need for some clearly demarcated personal space and furthermore her apartment is just not well situated for me to get to my place of work some 60 kilometers north of the capital. On the other hand, my apartment is too far outside of Paris for her to get to work and remain in close proximity to friends and all of the benefits of city life.

I enjoy living in Chantilly - for its provincial charm, its stately castle, gardens and royal stables, the Saturday market with not one but three stands selling fresh fish and that stand specializing in locally made goat cheese. The surrounding forest and countryside, full of ponds and mostly gently sloping rises are just perfect for long bike rides on weekends and after work during the warmer seasons. During my rides, I have often seen big game animals, wild boar, stags, red deer and roe deer, a fox or two, the horses in the fields and stables. The fauna is just as interesting with beautiful wild flowers blooming in Spring including carpets of wild daffodils, and many wild Orchid species. The smell of the Linden trees in bloom is unforgettable. One learns to avoid the sandier ground when on the bike and the places where water collects and muddy patches form after raining for several days at a stretch. There are many quaint medieval villages in the area to discover, each with its Romanesque or Gothic chapel and its "lavoirs". I love the experience of discovering a new route, a new glade in the forest, a new vista.

(The Chateau of Chantilly)

(The Royal Stables of Chantilly)

But with time comes familiarity so I suppose that it's only natural that today it seems not quite as exciting as it was at first, as new paths and vistas start to become more and more difficult to find. Oh, it's by no means a place that I've become tired of, but rather a place that I can leave, knowing that I have been able to take advantage of many of the good things it has to offer.

So I'm off to become a Parisian ... again. I've already had four different addresses in Paris, or in its inner suburbs. My first on the east side on the fifth story of a charming building "sans ascenseur" in Vincennes not far from the Parc de Vincennes and with the castle turret visible from my window. The second was a brief stay in a rather gloomy lower floor apartment with a northerly exposure near the Trocodero in the 16th arrondissement. I spent a year living on the west side in Neuilly just across the street from the Bois de Boulogne "holding down" a spacious luxury apartment with a terrace over looking the towers of la Defense for a senior colleague who had a dream to return to it one day. And then I went farther west, to the other side of the Bois living for four years in Suresnes in a more modest, but comfortable furnished apartment. Those were the days of the expatriate assignments. This time I'll be going back as a "local", without the assistance of relocation specialists. It won't be the first time I've done a European move solo as I organized my last move from Stuttgart to France on my own. And this time I'll have the benefit of good company.

I have never purchased property before so for this project I had to be sure I was ready for an adventure, even more so being in a foreign country. I felt confident that my language skills and general knowledge of the society were good enough to be able to sufficiently negotiate the ins and outs. I know of course far more now about buying property in France than I do in my own country. I'm quite sure after some cursory reading through guidebooks specializing on the American experience, that most of the underlying principles are the same, with many of the details being different.

The first step for Karine and I was to decide how to narrow our search for a home. Our home needed to be strategically located so that Karine's commute to Porte de Vanves on the southern edge of the city would be no more than 45 minutes, and so that I could gain easy access to the freeways leading out of Paris to the north and towards the provincial town of Compiègne in Picardy which is were I work. Proximity to public transportation was important for Karine with as few transfers as possible. So we traced metro line 13 which is not far from Karine's place of work northwards until it came into proximity with the freeway heading out of Paris in my direction. Ok, so admittedly social class was also a factor - largely immigrant and working class neighborhoods dropping out of the picture somewhere along the way (despite the temptingly affordable prices). We sadly did not find our diamond in the rough! So the search for the most practical option directed us to the north west inner suburb of Asnières-sur-Seine with some consideration given to the peripheral communities of Bois-Colombes and (to a lesser extent) Colombes. Asnières is far enough north to provide a more or less quick route by car out of Paris for me and is well served by the metro line 13 and the trains destined for the Gare Saint Lazare. If you looked at map you might wonder why we didn't consider Gennevilliers or Saint Denis which are also served by the line 13. Well, it's back to that little matter of social class ...

Our next step - to find out if there is anything on the market in Asnières that we like and that we can afford. There are different approaches to prospecting - relying on an agent, periodically scanning the classified ads in newspapers and flyers, wandering the neighborhood streets looking for "for sale" signs, or reading the postings outside of the realtor offices. We chose a less sportive method, signing up to realtor internet sites offering the ability to search listings based on personalized search criteria like surface area, price, number of bedrooms, etc. Our favored sites offered search engines that would automatically send e-mail alerts as soon as new listings appeared that matched our criteria. I would create sub-folders by realtor to which my e-mail software would automatically sort and direct the alerts based on rules such as sender address. When new alerts came in, the folder name would appear in bold until I read through all of them. I would sort through the alerts and forward the ones I took an interest in to Karine who then evaluated them herself. For those that passed our collective criteria, we would organize visits (mostly on Saturday as it is difficult for me to get to Paris in the evening on a regular basis). One of our most productive sources was a site specializing in properties being sold by the owners ( Here we found two properties on which we made offers but which for different reasons didn't amount to anything. In our particular case, we had better luck with a realtor. In France, we never came across the concept of a realtor working solely on behalf of the buyer as I believe happens in other countries. A seller can work with multiple realtors in listing a property, and a buyer feels no particular loyalty towards any one realtor in searching for a property. You generally end up working with the realtor through whom you discovered the property. We never felt that we could rely on one realtor to offer us a sufficient selection of properties.

We went through over 20 visits before finding a property we were ready to make an offer on. We benefited from each visit in developing and refining our list of criteria. We considered the importance of storage, parking, covered and uncovered, the size of the bedroom, the number of rooms, on what floor an apartment was situated, exposure to sunlight, etc. Our mutual "coup de coeur" was elusive. We looked at both apartments as well as houses. I was attracted to the independence of owning a house and particularly seduced by the French villa, especially those made of brick or decorated with brick, and let my sentimentality carry me away. Asnières and the surrounding communities have residential neighborhoods in which these villas are common, often built in the 1930's for the working class. The villas in our price range, although often quaint, also mostly needed fixing up or required significant makeovers, and had impractical layouts and small rooms. Apartments in late 19th and early 20th century buildings also captured my imagination, especially those with interesting facades, but the layouts were also often equally impractical and the buildings often lacking in essential conveniences such as elevators. Karine, unencumbered by the notions one has as a foreigner, kept a cooler head. Having lived many years with her parents in a home undergoing restoration, she was loath to undertake a project requiring significant fixing up. In the end we gravitated towards modern apartments with good storage and more practical layouts.

Once you find an apartment for which you are ready to spend money, you first enter into a non-binding negotiation with the realtor in the case the seller is using one, or directly with the seller if no realtor is involved. Through the course of our visits we built up our stock of market intelligence, getting to know neighborhoods and keeping track of the asking prices of different apartments and calculating prices per square meter.

After having visited some 30 odd properties we ended up seriously considering 3 apartments and one house. The house had charm and was located on a nice block, but unfortunately no storage and no parking. We kept it in the back of our heads as we considered other properties. We were still trying to figure out what we considered a reasonable price for an apartment when we stumbled across one at the end of a long day of visits in a neighborhood close to the attractive 19th century town hall. Upon visiting the apartment we both sensed that it was a good value and met almost all of our criteria but we were, in the end, too late to negotiate a price as a buyer had already beat us to the finish line with an offer which was acceptable to the owner. We had a second somewhat similar experience with an apartment in the same neighborhood but which was different in that it was more expensive and better appreciated by Karine than by myself. True, it was sell located in a quiet neighborhood with terraces on the North and South but I found the living room too small for my liking. We entered into non-binding negotiations but were out-bid.

So the search went on ...

[ add comment ] ( 14 views ) permalink

<< <Back | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | Next> >>