On Christmas morning, from beaches, piers, and coves around the country, people of all ages gather to immerse themselves in waters of around 50 degrees Fahrenheit (maximum).
"Swim" is a bit of a misnomer. There is no particular distance that you need to cover, nor any agreed-upon duration you must stay in the water. You simply join the crowd of people running toward and then into the water (cheered on by well-wrapped-up spectators), screaming as their bodies hit the ice-cold sea. A quick splash of the arms and legs, then back in to shore to dry off, wrap up, and enjoy a hot drink or a shot of whiskey.
Wetsuits have appeared on the scene in recent years, mostly among the kids, but it remains an unspoken rule among the hardy adults taking part: Traditional bathing suits only.
Our four Christmases in Paris were all about the lights. Each year, starting in November, Boulevard St. Germain, just a few blocks from our apartment in this city, is strung with tiny white lights. The trees and the building facades are covered with them. Each morning and again each evening as I'd walk Jackson, aged 4 through 8 at the time, to and from school, we'd linger at the intersection of rue du Bac and Boulevard St. Germain as long as possible, looking up and down, up and down, slowly, working to fix that magical view in our memories. "It's a fairy land," 4-year-old Jack declared it one morning. I see it still.
Twinkling lights and decorated shop windows. This time of year, storefronts throughout Paris are draped with pine garland, and displays feature green trees flocked with white and trimmed with red and gold baubles. No one does shop windows like the French do shop windows, and no others compare with the shop windows of central Paris at Christmastime.
My fondest memory of Christmas in Panama, where we've been living for the past five years, is of our son's annual Christmas pageant.
Jackson, now 14, attends Panama City's French school, l'Ecole Paul Gauguin. Four years ago, this meant he went to school with about 75 other children. Today, Jack is part of a student body that numbers more than 600. I was surprised when we arrived to discover that Panama's French school had 75 students, many, also surprising to me, Panamanian. Why would a Panamanian family, living in Panama City, choose to send their children to a French-language, French-curriculum school? I still don't know the answer to that question, but today dozens more Panamanian families are opting for this approach to educating their kids.
Of course, all the students at Paul Gauguin aren't Panamanian. Jack is one of the few Americans. In addition, there are kids from families that call themselves Spanish, Mexican, Colombian, Irish, English, German, Chinese, Japanese, Canadian, and, yes, French. The parents of these wandering youngsters are in Panama as entrepreneurs, like Lief and me, or because the international companies they work for have placed them here. And, again, their numbers have increased eight-fold while we've been part of the charming community they create.
L'Ecole Paul Gauguin is growing, and Jackson is growing with it.
Jack came to me this week to tell me he needs a red Santa hat and a green polo shirt. Would I please find these things for him at the mall this weekend?
"Ah, for your Christmas pageant?" I asked, excitedly. "Great. When is it? Dad and I always really enjoy the show."
"Parents of the older kids don't really come to it, Mom," Jackson responded. "Only the parents of the little kids come to watch. I just need you to get me the hat and the shirt."
Our first year in Panama, Paul Gauguin's Christmas pageant took place in the 300-year-old Teatro Anita Villalaz in the center of Casco Viejo's Plaza de Francia. Even back then, when the student body was much smaller than it is today, it made for as eclectic a collection of small children as you might ever find. Jackson introduced us to his friends from all over the world, some have names I couldn't pronounce even after Jackson repeated them for me three or four times. Finally, embarrassed for me, he gave up, suggesting that, if I have something to say to a particular child, he'd be happy to relay the message for me.
Some of these children, then and now, have lived in three or four other countries already, though they've only barely begun their little lives. Most speak Spanish and French; others also speak English, Italian, German, Japanese, Chinese... They switch among languages effortlessly and manage to communicate among themselves cheerfully and with far less misunderstanding than you might expect.
That first year, on stage in the grand old theater on the Plaza Francia, the young but worldly bunch from l'Ecole Paul Gauguin, Jackson among them, performed Christmas songs in Spanish, French, and English, including some we recognized and many we didn't.
"Children in Palestine and children in Israel, children from the Americas and also from China, this day, let us think only of Christmas," began one song in French.
At Jackson's birthday party last month, I had a chance to speak with some of his classmates' moms. Some have husbands working with the UN and other international organizations who have been posted in Panama for a year or two. Others are here for work related to various of this country's many infrastructure projects. They and their children have migrated to Panama from Mexico City or Caracas, Buenos Aires or Santiago, Paris or Madrid...
Lief and I worry sometimes about the life Jackson is living. Born in Ireland, he's since lived (and gone to school) in Paris...and now Panama City. He's an American by birth though his only experiences of the United States are his annual visits to see his grandmother and cousins in Baltimore. If you were to ask him, Jack would tell you that he's Irish, with the second passport to prove it. I wouldn't call him American or Irish or French either, though the parents of his friends are shocked always to discover that Jackson's parents are American, not French. "But Jackson is French, is he not?" they ask us, trying to make sense of Jack's perfect Parisian French in the context of our American English.
"No, he's American, like us," I explain, not sure how else to describe him.
Jackson is a little guy without a country but embracing the world. And, at the French school in Panama City, he's found about 600 other little guys and girls just like him who, one evening each year, join together to fill the tropical night with the sound of Christmas songs from around the world.
We'll spend Christmas Day this year with my family in Baltimore, my home town. I appreciate the chance to return to the place from which I launched my adventures overseas some 16 years ago at this time of year, the season for remembering and for taking stock. Where will 2014 lead us? I can't wait to find out.
On behalf of the entire far-flung staff of Live and Invest Overseas, please accept our warm and heartfelt wishes for a Merry Christmas, wherever you find yourself enjoying it this year, and our sincere hope that 2014 is the year your far-flung dreams of adventure overseas begin to come true.
All the best from our family to yours. We so appreciate your coming along with us for this ride.
But this was Christmas. Vicki and I had moved to Paris several months before and rented an apartment in Montmartre. We'd managed to back into Christmas with nothing planned, and that was fine with us. We like doing things together, just the two of us, on Christmas and other holidays, too. With nothing planned we decided to do what everyone in Paris does when they have nothing planned--walk around the neighborhood. We forget now whether this was Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, but it hardly matters. When we went downstairs and out onto the street we found to our surprise that all of Paris had been taken over by...oysters. Across the street from our apartment, where transvestites usually solicited on the sidewalk, a vendor sat behind a folding table covered with oysters. In the Place des Abbesses just up the hill, instead of boys playing soccer, we ran into pick-up trucks filled with oysters. We hadn't heard anything about oysters and Paris and Christmas, but those oysters looked good to us. We bought a couple dozen and took them home. We had only a tiny refrigerator in our tiny apartment, no place for oysters. And we worried about the smell. Voila. We put the oysters outside on the window sill. We thought this a terribly clever idea, as I recall, but later discovered the French do the same thing, routinely, every Christmas. That afternoon we went to the Eiffel Tower and climbed up. The Eiffel Tower stays open every day of the year, and we figured few tourists would choose to gather there on Christmas. Sure enough the place was practically deserted. We had a lovely view of Paris on a crisp December day. Finally we returned home, opened a bottle of champagne, and ate oysters. A new tradition was born. We were French, if only a little bit, and only for Christmas. We later discovered that Paris's best bar, the Red Baron (Baron Rouge in French), offers up oysters every Saturday and Sunday morning during winter. On Friday evenings a guy from Bordeaux loads his pick-up with oysters from his farm. He then makes the long drive to Paris and serves up his oysters on the sidewalk outside the Red Baron, bright and early Saturday morning. He then returns to Bordeaux on Saturday night, reloads, and shows up again on Sunday. If you're in Paris this winter, be sure to check out the Red Baron some weekend. You'll find it just off the Place d'Aligre in the 12th. Let me know if the oyster guy still works there. One final point about oysters: My favorite French king, Henri IV, loved the things. Every day during the winter oyster season he had three dozen oysters brought to him on a wagon from Brittany. Henri IV deserves fame for signing the Edict of Nantes, guaranteeing religious freedom. But he's also famous for his love of life and life of love. Over the years many people have put Henri IV's love life and his love of oysters together. So that was Christmas in Paris: Eiffel Tower, oysters, a nod to Henri IV and the Baron Rouge, and champagne. Perfect. Paul Terhorst
The first grapes for champagne from the new areas will be harvested in 2019, meaning we'll see the first bottles of champagne produced from the new vineyards on store shelves in 2021.
I'm not recommending running out and trying to speculate on villages and then which specific pieces of land that might be reclassified to allow for growing “Champagne” grapes.
However, I do have a recommendation from another region of France that is as romantic but far more turn-key. After Champagne, we traveled to Limousin, in the middle of the country, where we toured an interesting chateau resort project.
While I'm sure you've heard of Champagne, you may never have heard of Limousin. This is a far less touristed part of this country. It's mostly farmland that one passes through to get from the north of France to the south and the coast. However, I'd say Limousin is under-appreciated. This unsung part of France has beautiful countryside as well as some special, classic, and historic chateaux.
One of these, Chateau Cazine, has been purchased by a U.K. developer and is being transformed from a modest hotel with an excellent restaurant to a full-fledged destination resort with a spa, a golf course, and that same excellent restaurant.
The heart of the property is a “petit chateau” whose foundation dates back to the 12th century. This picture-postcard-perfect and very historic structure is being renovated into the new resort's luxury spa center and is expected to be an important draw.
However, the main event is the main chateau, imposing and grand, built in 1898, and every bit the picture of French chateau life. This building has been renovated already and is up and running as a boutique hotel with 18 deluxe rooms and the fine dining restaurant.
In addition to the main chateau and the petit chateau, the property includes several other large stone outbuildings, many of which are currently being converted into a collection of rental apartments. This work is expected to be completed in the next 12 to 18 months.
Other of the outbuildings will also be renovated and some new structures will be built to create additional studio, one-bedroom, two-bedroom, and even three-bedroom apartments, all of which will be operated as rental units. In all, when the project is completely built out, the property will include about 140 rental units.
All of that is colorful, charming, romantic, and interesting, but, you may be wondering, where's the investment opportunity?
The investment opportunity is in the rental units, which are being developed and which will be managed and operated as part of the French leaseback program. This affords investors in the units two key benefits:
The French government initiated these “leaseback” programs (which include benefits not only for the investor, but for the developer, as well) more than 30 years ago to help incentivize investment in the development of additional inventory for this country's short-term rental industry. As France is one of the most visited countries in the world and has been for decades, the demand for short-term rentals and hotel rooms is tremendous and expanding. More than 80 million people visit France each year, and they all need places to sleep.
I've reported on French leaseback offers in the past. Typical for these offers are guaranteed annual returns of 3% to 6%. Generally, the return is guaranteed over a 9- or 11-year lease agreement with the hotel management company and indexed to construction inflation. This developer is doing things a bit differently, and, in fact, different leaseback terms are in place for different phases of the project. The most recently released phase is the one I want to bring to your attention.
The newest building in the project is to include one-bedroom and studio units with a leaseback return of 10% per year for 15 years. In the meantime, during the construction period before the leaseback term begins, the developer will pay you 5% a year until the building is completed.
Why is this developer offering a 10% return when other French leasebacks offer from 3% to 6%? First, the 10% isn't a net figure. Owners will participate in future refurbishment costs equally with the developer. This amount isn't expected to be huge, but it will cut into your 10% yield every five years (the typical period between refurbishment efforts for a hotel). You'll also have to pay a small annual management fee and some insurance. Factoring all of that into the equation, you should expect to net around 9% per year over the 15 years of the leaseback agreement.
At the end of 15 years, you'll have two options. You could continue to own the property, keep it in the rental pool, and receive a 50/50 split of net room revenue going forward. Or you could sell the property back to the developer for 150% of the original purchase price. You have to give proper notification if you want to execute this strategy, but this option gives you an easy potential exit for a guaranteed return.
A third option would be to put the property up for sale on the open market. It's possible that you could resell the property for more than 150% of what you paid for it. You'd have to consider the market at the time to make your decision.
Factor in the 50% profit from the resale at the end of the 15-year leaseback term (assuming you exercise your buyback option), and your annualized returns push into the low double digits.
These one-bedroom and studio apartments can be bought either as complete units or as fractionals. Fractional units start at £9,500 for a 1/26th fraction (two weeks) and £18,500 for a 1/13th fraction for a one-bedroom unit. Studios are offered only as 1/13th fractions at £11,500.
The full unit price is £130,000 for a studio and £200,000 for a one-bedroom. The price includes furnishing for the hotel room.
Note that the pound sterling is up 2% in the last month against the U.S. dollar and is at a high for the last two years. If you're investing with U.S. dollars, this means this investment is more expensive today than it would have been a month ago. However timing investments to currency rates is difficult, and I don't recommend you try. This investment provides decent currency diversification if all your assets are in your home currency otherwise (assuming your home currency isn't the British pound).
Also note that, while your guaranteed return is tied to your initial investment in pounds (as is the 150% buyback), should you decide to keep the unit and participate in the 50/50 net room revenue split after the guarantee period, your currency risk switches from the pound sterling to the euro, as the hotel operates in euro.
Given the level of returns and the standard of the project, this is the most interesting French leaseback program I've found in the 15 years I've been paying attention to and reporting on these opportunities.
The Chateau Cazine is an extraordinary property and is included in the Chateau and Hotel Collection. This is one way that guests looking for unique and interesting places to stay in France will find it. The chateau is being developed as a spa and golf resort, meaning those are two other ways potential guests will find it (when they search for spa or golf properties in France). This will also be an ideal venue for corporate events and weddings.
The local Limoges airport is served by Ryanair from London, Leeds, Kiverpool, East Midlands, and Bristol in the U.K. as well as a couple of low-cost French airlines. Low-cost airline access has opened up many real estate and tourist markets in Europe.
The developer owns the property outright and has no debt. Bundle that with the buyback option, the 15 years of guaranteed returns, and the fact that the hotel is already up and running and enjoying very good occupancy rates, and you've got an investment for which the overall risk is nicely mitigated.
Furthermore, you are not likely to find another leaseback property anywhere in France offering this level of return.
For more details, you can get in touch with the developer here.
Nimes is a lovely city where, in Roman times, soldiers were given plots of land to farm in their retirement. Augustus Caesar liked Nimes and made it the capital of Narbonne Province in France. It was to provide water for Nimes that the Romans built the famous Pont du Gard aqueduct, which is also a bridge crossing high above the River Gardon, a breathtaking and inspiring engineering accomplishment. The Romans did a lot of other building in Nimes, too, and the city thrived during the first few centuries after the time of Christ.
One of the outstanding attractions in the center of Nimes is a slightly smaller version of the Coliseum that is in Rome. The one in Nimes is in much better condition than its better known counterpart in Rome, and it is still used for bullfights and other events that attract large crowds. In an aerial view of the city, its amphitheater (coliseum) can be clearly seen in the very heart of the city where all the major roads meet. You can shop in the old part of the city, linger at a sidewalk café, and tour the amphitheater all within a few blocks. This is a city for walking.
Southern France is lovely in the early spring when the trees leaf out early and the streets aren't crowded with tourists. Really, though, Nimes is lovely at any time of year. A home of your own in Nimes itself isn’t a super bargain. You could invest in a four-room 1,000-square-foot home for US$260,000 to US$280,000 at current exchange rates. However, prices can be much more moderate in nearby villages.
You could follow the example of the Roman Legionnaires and retire to Nimes. Living here, you are close to Avignon and Orange, and Marseille is not far away either…
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Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter.
Her book, How To Retire Overseas—Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.
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