Profession Liberale, Part 5: I get a 4-year card

This is the final article in a series about my transition to a citizenship path.  You can find part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, and part 4 here.

I tried not to get emotional in front of the lady who had just handed me the card.  I looked at the date that it was valid until: 17/09/2021.  It wasn’t the right moment to reflect – there were a lot of people behind me in line, and this was just a chance for me to verify my identity, hand over the payment, and collect the card, which I did.

It was when I walked out of the prefecture on Ile de la Cite that I took a moment to reflect and process my thoughts.  The reason I nearly got emotional as I was picking up the card was because I had no roadmap to this outcome when I first arrived in France in 2013.  There were no blogs or guides on how to get a long-term stay visa, much less the citizenship-path visa which I now hold, and as someone who had owned businesses and hadn’t held a “job” for decades, I really didn’t know how my journey would progress in the Old World.  I’ve said before, not just in articles here, but to friends as well, that if I had known how difficult it would be to build an entirely new life and way of being before I got here, I might not have come.  Yet, I look back across the challenges and difficulties and can genuinely say it was worth it.  But I can only say that now.  I know that homesickness beat some, inability to earn income beat others, and the difficulty of adapting not just to life in a densely-populated city, but in one so sui generis as Paris, beat a few more.  But at the dawn of my fifth year in my dream city, I knew with deep satisfaction that I had finished this first part of the race.

Credit where it is due

I want to pay particular credit for this renewal to Jean Taquet.  Some weeks before my appointment I had gone to his office for a “practice run.”  This is one of the many services that he provides: Jean would pretend to be an official of the prefecture, and I would present my dossier as if I were at my real appointment.  He would then critique my presentation and I would take notes on what needed to be fixed, if anything.  While he was happy with most of my paperwork, he was particularly unhappy with the income going into my business.  “They aren’t going to like that,” he said in his usual grave manner when he sees a problem.  I repeated to him what I had told my accountant some weeks previously when she had expressed surprise at the low income: I wanted to limit my taxable exposure until I had a better sense of how the social charges mapped out across a calendar year.  Jean shook his head and reminded me that my one year visa was a trial – they wanted to see how I was getting on and if I seemed to be doing well, then they could possibly give me a 4-year card instead of just another one-year renewal.  “Can you ask your clients to pay your French company instead of your American one?”  I nodded in reply.

I had delayed this action for some time, because it would mean invoicing in euros instead of dollars, which would involve a bit of explaining, and it would pave the road for TVA charges in the future.  He advised me to invoice as much as possible between now and the appointment, and to have a letter explaining the lag in billing (US clients were reluctant to change to billing in euros, etc.).  I went to a few of my clients, explained how changing the billing would help my immigration process and they agreed to the change.  What had been a division between countries (I had been billing my American clients via my American corporation and my European clients via my French company) was erased and I started billing more of my clients via the French company.  Those invoices and a cover letter explaining the rapid increase in billings were a key part of my dossier.

So merci, Jean for the tough love and good advice during our practice session.

Jour-J (D-Day equivalent)

From the start this visit was not like any of my other previous visits to the Prefecture.  Profession Liberale is handled separately from the visitor renewals, in a new office on the 1st floor (American 2nd floor) of the building.  Instead of confronting the usual jam-packed standing-room-only room of 30 people that I had each time for four years, I came into a relaxed, sunny room with room for at least 40 but only half-occupied.  My appointment was for 11h00, which meant I showed up at 10h00 (I’ve said thisbefore, but always show up early to get seen close to “on time”).  As usual, you present your appointment and paperwork in order to get a number.

An hour and a half later, or 30 minutes after my original appointment time, my number was called and I walked through a door to an very large room with roughly 10 different guichets (booths) for various cases.  About half of them were in use.  I sat down and exchanged bonjours with the gentleman who had my dossier.  He flipped through everything, quietly speaking to himself and making notes.  About 5 minutes later he told me he would review the file with his boss and call me back.

Thirty minutes later my number came up again and sitting on the desk of my guichet was a recipisse.  “Great!” I thought, not really thinking to ask how long it was good for.  As I was signing he said it was for a four-year card.  I was thunderstruck.  “A four year card!” I thought to myself, trying to keep my facial expression stoic, as if I had expected this outcome, as he continued, telling me that I would get a text message letting me know when I could pick up my card.  “Text message!” I marveled.  It wasn’t just the building that was getting renovated and upgraded!

Sure enough, roughly one month after my appointment I received a text message telling me that one month later I could come by and pick up my card, after I had dropped 269 euros for its manufacture.  Now, before you start getting upset at the price, realize that for a 4-year card, this worked out to 67,25€ per year, which was by far the cheapest visa renewal I’d ever done.

He handed me a brochure that described how to buy my fiscal stamps from…the internet!

French bureaucracy discovers electronic payment

Even the process of buying fiscal stamps has been modernized.  I can recall my first few months in Paris, embarrassed at the line of people (smokers anxious to pick up relief for their addiction) behind me at a tabac, as the owner counted out the proper amount of old fashioned stamps, dating back to the good old days of the ancien regime.  Those days were gone.  Now, all you had to do was go to the city’s website, provide your name and email address, then pay (using your debit or credit card) and you would get a PDF with a QR code(!) on it.  This, along with the mandate to possibly move the entire country, starting in 2019, to taxation at paycheck (you would no longer have to file and pay annually, but would pay throughout the year, whenever you receive your paycheck) makes me feel like France is entering the space age, relatively speaking!

Even as I write this article I’m shocked by the idea that I won’t have to go to the prefecture for four years.  No more recipisses, no more scheduling vacations and trips around appointments at Cite.  So, while I won’t be able to regale you with administrative stories anymore (in four more years I will be putting together a citizenship dossier, not worrying about another visa renewal), I will be telling you more about life in France, and in Paris particularly, as I move on to other things, like buying property or (gasp!) hiring employees.  What would you like to hear about?  Share in the comments below.

As a coda to the story I didn’t realize when I got my text message informing me of the date of pickup, that it would be Thanksgiving Day in America.  Needless to say, I am grateful – not just for a successful outcome for these first 4 years of the journey, but the ability to share the ups and downs with you, and hear all the fascinating stories of your journeys as well.

The picture is a map of the reorganized prefecture following some renovations.  When you come to pick up your CDS now it’s the first door on the left, not the last door, as it was for all the years I had come before.

The Airbnb Wars in Paris: for now, a truce

I’ve covered the Airbnb issue here previously, both my perspective as an entrepreneur and what Paris had been becoming more strict about.  On December 1st a “truce” will officially be in force as legislation first passed this summer comes into effect.  While the hotels have cheered this legislation, they are not quite done with their lobbying, as they may push for even more restrictive policies in 2018.

What’s changed

The city has mandated registration for every single property offered on Airbnb in Paris, which at last count, was north of 55,000 rooms (check out this mesmerising real-time map with the funny gap in the 19th/20th where Pere Lachaise is).  This registration, at the moment, is simply declarative, and requires no documentation/authorization from the city.  You go to the dedicated website, create an account and give them your name and contact information, and you’ll then receive a registration number, which needs to be displayed on your airbnb listing (there’s a field for it).  This will make it easier for city officials focused on compliance to find illegal listings (and monitor the registered ones).

The legislation also clarified that no full-time (365 day availability) airbnbs would be permitted without a formal change of classification of the property to “bed and breakfast” by the occupant (with all the paperwork and taxes that comes with).  Given that over 40% of the listings on Airbnb in Paris are “full-time” this should lead to a significant decrease in Airbnb’s inventory in the city:

Attention! Assurez-vous que votre situation vous permet de louer un meublé de tourisme avant de déposer votre déclaration. A Paris, la location de courte durée n’est possible que s’il s’agit de votre résidence principale (louée moins de 120 jours/an) ou s’il s’agit d’un local commercial. En cas d’infraction, vous vous exposez à une amende de 50 000 €.

For those still working on their French, this reminds people that should they wish to rent short-term (on a site like Airbnb or Booking) that they can only do so for 120 calendar days per year and that you can be subject to a fine of 50,000 euros for failing to comply.  Implied is also that your lease allows subletting (some do not) and that you either have written or at least oral permission from the owner to rent on sites like Airbnb.

Airbnb has added internal compliance by preventing hosts in the 1st-4th arrondissements from renting for more than 120 days, but Ian Brossat, who is Mayor Hidalgo’s senior advisor on housing was unimpressed, tweeting that that meant the law could be broken in 16 other arrondissements.

But, does this really change anything?

Assuredly, the city does not have the resources to audit the current 55,000+ listings on Airbnb and other platforms, but they have gotten very serious about this (other European examples include Berlin, which saw a 40% drop in inventory after passing a law aimed specifically at Airbnb, and Barcelona, which fined Airbnb 600,000€ last year over unlicensed properties), with the biggest concession being that Airbnb collects the occupancy tax on informal housing in Paris, and rather than pass that cost to its hosts in its most-used city, it has eaten that cost itself, paying the City of Paris more than 7,000,000€ per year.

Mayor Anne Hidalgo has been very intentional about her vision for the city, not just in splashy things like courting the Olympics, but in every day things like transport and design choices.  She doesn’t get her way all the time, but this is one of the issues in which she faces no real opposition: Parisians do not want their already difficult housing situation squeezed by too many short term rentals, and this will certainly return many of studios and studettes into the medium and long-term inventory of the city, and some of the larger properties into real options for families who want to live in the city.

There will be some who continue to risk having an unregistered listing or listing for more than 120 days, but with this official registration period (between October 1st and December 1st) and the push from Airbnb itself for hosts to comply, we are likely to see the vast majority of listings in Paris fall into line and the borderline/illegal ones go away.

What can still happen?

The hotels have openly stated that they are targeting a 90-day allowance rather than the 120 days now given, but given the extensive vacation that Parisians take, 120 days covers periods in the Summer and Winter in which residents can be gone and the city willingly grants that there should be allowance given to offset rent and/or make income for residents and permission for visitors to live “as a local” should they choose.  So, while there might be a push for further legislation, at the moment the hotels, like most of Paris, are focused on the holidays, and we are all enjoying our longest respite without a major attack.  That will allow those visiting Paris and using Airbnb to enjoy their stays particularly now, because if and when they return, those rooms may be off the market, literally.

Airbnb, having seen the writing on the wall for some time, is happily diversifying into fields that hotels cannot, recently adding experiences and restaurants (not yet in Paris, but here’s the link for NYC) to their offerings to travelers.  Their vision is to allow people to experience real life in those cities, not just rooms in a building, and there’s no way to restrict travelers from doing precisely that.

Photo by Nil Castellví on Unsplash

Profession Liberale, Part 4: VAT (or TVA)

This is the latest in an ongoing series about my transition to a citizenship path.  You can find part 1 here, part 2 here and part 3 here.  

Most people who find out that I’m self-employed in France assume I am under the auto-entrepreneur regime, but I avoided that for a number of reasons, not least of which was the income ceiling of 33,100 euros.  You simply aren’t allowed to earn above this amount without reclassification of your status.  There is talk that President Macron may change this, but that remains to be seen.

That number of 33,100 is also quite close to 33,200 euros, which is the limit for a non-VAT tax return for my regime, profession liberale.

What is VAT?

VAT stands for Value Added Tax.  In French it is TVA (taxe sur la valeur ajoutee).  It is, generally speaking, a 20% consumption tax that is added onto all goods and services bought or sold inside the EU.  But this means that if you don’t live in the EU, you don’t have to pay it…unless you do.  Let me explain.

Let’s say you are here as a tourist but you don’t really spend that much money on souvenirs, etc.  You probably won’t take the time (or have spent enough to qualify) to fill out the paperwork to get a VAT refund before you go home.  Some stores have the software and capability to process you on the spot so that you don’t have to pay the VAT at all, but there needs to be a minimum purchase amount.  Through VAT, most people end up paying extra taxes into Europe without enjoying any of the privileges or benefits of being a European taxpayer, the same way that Europeans visiting the US pay sales taxes whenever they visit America without reaping any benefits (that said, there are two states – Louisiana and Texas, that do offer refunds to foreign visitors, and of course the states like New Hampshire, Alaska, etc. that don’t have sales tax).

If you’re here on a long-term stay visa or other equivalent, you are ineligible for a VAT refund because you are a fiscal resident here.

Then there’s my French business and my non-French clients.  If I bill less than 33,200 euros in any given year, I don’t owe VAT and neither do my clients.  But if I bill more than 33,200 euros to my clients in any given year, I have to change my tax return from a non-VAT return to a VAT return, which means that I have to pay my accountants more (they have to do paperwork) and then I have to turn around and assess a 20% tax on all of my clients (they will now be required to pay), some of which are headquartered outside of Europe and may not know what VAT is – and I’m uncertain as to the deductibility of it for them from their tax returns.  In any event, though I don’t technically have an income ceiling as the auto-entrepreneur status does, there’s a “soft ceiling” here that will cause me to make administrative and business changes, none of which makes me any more money…

Auditing Agency

I also have to pay about 300 euros a year to belong to an agency for profession liberale adherents that “audits” my returns.  By being a member of this organization (in my case, France Gestion), my total taxable income is lowered by 20%.  They will tell you that you don’t have to belong to one of these agencies – but do the math – 300 euros is a small price to pay to reduce your taxable income by 20%.  But, it is “one more thing” you have to do in order to have a small business.

The Citizenship Narrative

Some years from now when I put together my citizenship dossier for the prefecure, I will not be able to simply show them a set of tax returns which show business income that has mysteriously stopped growing at 33,200€.  I know that in a couple years, I will need to move to a VAT return and find a way to bring my clients along with these charges (or eat the loss myself).  The reason for this is the French want to see that you are not just integrated into French life, but are growing and have a vision for the future, and they will smell a rat if they see your business rapidly grew to a certain level and then stopped.

Obviously, this one business isn’t the only way to earn income, and I could easily start other businesses or create other streams of income and avoid some paperwork…but it would only come at the cost of even more paperwork.

Again, I’m here because I love this country and so many things about it.  But I’m not here because France makes it easy for me to create businesses and jobs, things which I can do fairly well.  Indeed, as you’ve seen in numerous articles I’ve written here, the French administration doesn’t make it easy.  I do know that if Macron removes some of these constraints people like me will help grow the economy faster, just by being ourselves.

Photo by Sanwal Deen on Unsplash

A side hustle that becomes part of your business

If you pay attention and spend a bit of time thinking through the economics, you’ll see that there are dozens of ways that people build incomes for themselves in Paris.  I wanted to tell you about two of them.

Cobblers and Keys

In America there are automatic key-cutting machines which can be operated by a 16-year old employee, can be found in both drug stores and hardware stores, and produce keys at a cost between $1-$9 USD.  To be fair, American house keys tend to be small and not particularly complicated.

But, as far as I can tell, machines such as these are illegal/unknown in France (knowing the power of strikes, more likely illegal).  Every place I’ve been to in order to get keys cut has a professional grade key machine, with access to even more.  The “even more” refers to the high-end computer-encoded keys that take a couple weeks that can cost 125 euros to make and require a copy of your ID and lease, or the badges, which run 20-40€ that some people use in order to save having to remember their key codes.  Paris has a very particular key market, with skeleton keys playing a prominent role, and the cheapest you’ll pay for any key reproduction is 6€.

This is all to say that rarely will you find someone who only does keys.  The most common combination you will see is a cobbler who also makes keys.  Because there’s more skill required for cobbling than for key making, I’m assuming these are cobblers who simply added key-making to their repertoire.

I’ve estimated by observing business at several locations, that between these two income streams, someone could easily take in a minimum of 70k€/year at such establishments, and they probably take in much more, given that they have rent and often have at least one employee.  Not to mention our favorite: French social charges.

Tailors and Packages

In France, as in the US, not all dry cleaners do alterations.  You’ll often see signs for “retouches” that indicate someone who does alterations and sometimes tailoring from scratch.  My tailor does a lot of trade in dry cleaning as well, but it’s clear that he has it done by one of the dry cleaners nearby, and then simply adds his markup.  Many dry cleaners don’t do alterations here, so the convenience of dropping something off that needs patching, then having it cleaned for you after, is what you are paying for.

But apart from the dry cleaning side hustle, my tailor also provides what can best be understood as “Amazon locker” services.  For years before Amazon mainstreamed such a concept, people in big cities needed places to drop off and pick up packages: essentially a storage place without shipping services.  For example, if you are moving out of an apartment and need to return your modem/router, you will often be asked to print out a prepaid shipping label.  You slap it on a box and bring it to a location like my tailor’s, which is listed as one of the possible drop-off locations (along with optician shops or sometimes small boutiques).  He gets some marginal extra income for no investment (he’s provided with the scanner and software to accept your package) and he’s happy to pile the boxes around what could generously be called his “reception area.”  He also has a cross-marketing opportunity to snag some customers who may not otherwise have known of his existence, and are happy with his nice demeanor.

Both my tailor and my cobbler make decent livings, make their own hours, and never worry about business.  They always have smiles on their faces.  Yet, they were smart enough to dig their wells before they were thirsty, and created multiple streams of income without being distracted from their core line of work.  You can still hustle here in France.  They just do it with a more leisurely attitude.

Photo by Dương Trần Quốc on Unsplash

Profession Liberale, Part 3: Delays, no taxes, but money back

This is the latest in an ongoing series about my transition to a citizenship path.  You can find part 1 here, and part 2 here.

It had been 14 months since the glorious granting of my Profession Liberale visa and the beginning of long-term stability here in my beloved France.  I was at the prefecture with all my paperwork which, for the renewal of my provisional one year visa, was focused on proving two things (in addition to all the “usual” stuff you need for a renewal):

  1. That I was current on all my social charges and
  2. That my new French business was generating enough revenue to justify a renewal

However, the appointment was cut short as the supervisor deplored my lack of a declaration from the Ministry of Finance that I had, indeed, filed my taxes (the copy I had provided of my filed return was deemed insufficient).  “Come back in 3 months,” she said with the usual “not my problem” tone of voice.  Well, that was in July, and a few weeks ago, as I was getting ready for the rescheduled appointment, I realized what the issue was.

My new French business accountants had a mandate from me to also file my personal return, but they had done so incorrectly, and as such my French personal accountant had to amend and resubmit it.  My first year in business in France was very modest and I had no taxes to pay, therefore the letter due to come to me saying I owed 0€ (which is the letter I needed for the prefecture) was at the bottom of the priority list for the Ministry of Finance.

In lieu of this document I had to obtain a signed, dated, and stamped attestation from the Ministry of Finance that yes, I was a law-abiding citizen who had filed my tax return.  My friend and mentor Jean Taquet told me that people have an actual fear about going to the Ministry of Finance, but not being possessed of such a fear (skydiving = scary, tax people ≠ scary), I went to 13 rue de la Banque on a weekday afternoon, and after a few minutes in line and a verification of my identity, cross-checked with my fiscal number from my previous tax returns, I got two copies of the document I needed for my appointment.

Since the appointment had been delayed an additional three months, I was also expected to update everything from the last (failed) appointment: attestations from URSSAF and RSI that I was a good boy, as well as my business bank account statements and most recent invoices to my clients.

Speaking of which, as a consequence of the modest first year of revenues, I got a refund from URSSAF.  That’s right, I had earned less than the estimated base year, which is what I had paid against, and since the French base your current year’s charges on the previous year’s earnings, which they now had in their possession, I got money back as I had already overpaid in 2017 against their estimates.  I almost fell out of my chair when I saw the line item in my online banking account with the money which had come back to me out of nowhere.

But the biggest surprise of all came at the appointment itself, which I will tell you more about in a future article.

Photo by Murray Campbell on Unsplash

No-frills train travel: a new trend

What if I told you that train companies were using principles pioneered by RyanAir and EasyJet and applying them to the convenience and speed of train travel?  If you love train travel as much as I do, you might be as excited as I was when I first found out about them.  Thankfully, I’m still excited about them, because they are generally great services that I’ve used multiple times over the last 4 years.

iDTGV

Back in 2004 SNCF created a program called iDTGV focused on budget travel to and from Paris.  The idea was simple: why not sell budget fares, only available via online ticketing, on older trains that can be towed behind undersold TGV trains that have to run anyway?  This would mean that underperforming routes could be subsidized and a new line of revenue would be created.  The service would have a stricter luggage provision and wouldn’t have onboard conductors (though there would still be a food carriage).  Instead, the tickets (and luggage) would be checked outside before boarding.  iDTGVs continue to be part of the ticketing mix offered by SNCF.

Ouigo

In 2013 SNCF, partially due to the pressure of the ultra-low-cost air carriers on rail passenger numbers, iterated further on iDTGV and came up with Ouigo.  There are is a “Oui” bus service called Ouibus (pronounced wee-boose), which are directly competing with Flixbus (fleex-boose) – comfortable seats, free internet, electrical outlets at each seat, and rock bottom pricing.  But I want to focus on Ouigo trains this time and may tell you more about the great bus lines in another article.

Ouigo trains offer amazing pricing: two of my friends took a Ouigo from Paris to Bordeaux this summer and paid 30€ each for the 2 hour trip – that line has recently been upgraded to shave 90 minutes off what used to be a 3.5 hour trip to the heart of the Atlantic coastal wine country.  Ouigo also runs to Montpellier, Lyon, Nantes, Lille, Rennes, and, of course, Paris.

So…what’s the catch?  There are several.
  • Tickets can only be bought online through the Ouigo site or at my personal favorite, Trainline (the French startup formerly known as Captain Train).  Tickets must be printed out or presented using a mobile app.  Not having your ticket printed can lead to you having to pay more before boarding.
  • Like iDTGV, your luggage is restricted, but even more so.  You are allowed one piece of hand luggage and additional pieces cost extra.
  • You won’t be using the “main” Paris stations.  Ouigo trains coming to Paris stop at CDG, Marne-la-Vallée (Disneyland), or Massy (in the dreaded suburbs).  This strategy means SNCF doesn’t cannibalize the revenue of the business traveler, who is quite happy to pay less to travel the same route if you make it easy, but if you tell him/her that the departures are from the three above stations, which vary from 45-90 minutes away from the center of Paris by RER, they will almost always pass.  Tell budget travelers the same thing (like saying you need to spend 70 minutes on a shuttle to get to Beauvais or that on Ouigo they will be arriving at Saint-Exupéry when they go to Lyon) and not only will they jump at the low fare, they might elbow you out of the way to ensure they get it before the tickets sell out.  The business reason is that SNCF has to pay less for trains departing from “budget” stations than from the main ones, which are the same questions that airlines face when choosing which airport to use and whether to use gates instead of stairs, etc.
How does SNCF limit costs with Ouigo?
  • As alluded to above, the fees it pays to the company that runs the stations, SNCF Reseau, are less for the “budget” stations.
  • Like iDTGV, there aren’t “conductors,” who are the single highest-paid staff on the trains for SNCF, but rather a team that is tasked with doing multiple things, from cleaning, to addressing customer issues, security, etc.
  • There is no food carriage.
  • There is no customer service phone number or email address.  You can only address complaints or questions using the website.
  • Ouigo trains are run up to 13 hours a day, almost double the standard 7 for most TGV trains.  They can run on their own or be simply added on to an existing TGV service, so SNCF can leverage the assets as best needed.

Ouigo has sold over 5 million tickets since inception, 80% of which sold for 35 euros or less.

Thayls, which most of us associate with The Netherlands, is actually a subsidiary of SNCF, and unsurprisingly, with Ouigo’s success, a version has popped up called IZY (A French speaker would pronounce those letters as “easy” which is the branding play hoped for, but an English speaker might understandably ask, “What’s an Izzy?”).

IZY

IZY one-ups iDTGV and Ouigo by offering rock bottom pricing – as low as 10 euros, and offers an outside-of-France option: Brussels.  The first time I took IZY I saw 18 IZY carriages hitched up to 6 Thayls ones.  Now, keep in mind that a regular Thayls fare to the Netherlands (Rotterdam, Schipol, or Centraal) averages between 90-150 euros, so a journey that takes half that time (and half the distance) at 10 euros is quite a deal.  Those fares sell out quickly as they are “standing” tickets, as do the 19€ “sit in the unheated/uncooled hallway of the carriage” fares, but even the 29 and 39 euro fares sell pretty quickly.  A nice aspect to this budget service is that if you do buy the 10€ “standing” fare, and there are seats available when the train departs, the staff will invite you to have a seat (I got “upgraded” from the 19€ fare I paid in that manner the last time I took an IZY).

* * *

There are whispers of more continent-wide programs similar to what Ouigo and Izy are pioneering.  This can only be good news for travelers who will get more options, and less-expensive ones, to satisfy their wanderlust.  The first “big” play in trains, continentally, will come when Eurostar finally launches their London-Amsterdam line, which was supposed to launch December 2016, but is currently slated for Easter 2018.  To be fair, it is Eurostar’s most ambitious project, and requires coordination and cooperation with the train companies in 4 different countries.  The train will take around 4 hours from city center to city center, and that makes it, like the Paris-London Eurostar, faster than flying, which will necessarily cause airfares to drop between those destinations.

That said, traveling to the Low Countries these days presents the traveler with a bit of an oddity: security screening.  With the terrorist shadow we have lived with the past three years, the trains are expected to do “something” except that train passengers are used to not being screened.  So what ends up happening on outbound services is a very long line in which people walk through metal detectors, set them off, and get waved through anyway (like what happens around 16h00 every day at the Louvre and Orsay, when the staff have decided they’ve done enough work for the day) and bags are put through a screening process that sometimes features no one monitoring bags.  They are moving too quickly to truly catch anything, and I can only hope that something doesn’t happen on one of the trains because skipping the hassles of air travel is one of the great pleasures of rail travel.

Those pleasures await you on these innovative (and inexpensive) services.

Photo by Stefan Kunze on Unsplash

Just trying to help…

I was standing with a number of my fellow passengers that had just disembarked at the Saint-Germain-des-Pres metro station.  There were a number of ticket inspectors in front of me scanning the Navigo passes or simple tickets of the passengers.  Were we on the Metro legally or not?  They were there to find out.

My thoughts on fare cheats in general, and on those in Paris in particular, are for another day and another article.  Suffice to say there are always at least half a dozen people receiving tickets of between 35€ (you have an unused metro ticket in your possession) and 50€ (you have nothing) fines.  If you’re using a friend’s Navigo (we all have our pictures printed on them) you’ll get a 70€ fine.  And those are the “on the spot” payment costs, and yes, they do take credit cards.  It’s more if you pay later, and even more if you pay that fee past a certain date.

So why am I telling you this?  Obviously I had an intact Navigo (I’m on the annual pass plan), right?  Yes, except when my inspector tried to scan it she had a bit of trouble.  “Follow me,” she said in French.  We went to the main ticket window and they verified that my pass was indeed valid and that I had scanned in correctly from the last station.  “I’m going to get you a new card, this chip has worn out – it’ll be at your home metro station, which is?” Her French was fairly fast but by the time she stopped speaking I had put it all together and told her, “Reaumur-Sebastopol.”  “Okay, so I’ll have it there for you this evening.  In the meantime, here’s a day pass good for all 5 zones.”  I smiled, shrugged my shoulders, and verified, “Pensez-vous qu’il pret ce soir?”  “Definitely, perhaps even in an hour,” she replied.

True to form, I got a text message telling me that my Navigo was waiting for me at my home metro station about an hour later.  I was flabbergasted by the efficiency of, of all agencies, the RATP.  Some time later I got there and showed them my text message and asked for my Navigo.  It was indeed there, but then commenced a 15 minute ordeal for the woman who tried to activate my card.  She called three different colleagues asking them about “a little checkbox that won’t click” in my profile on her screen and then asked me in French if I was in a hurry.  I nodded.  “Well, if you want to come back before midnight…” “Ici?” I interrupted.  “Non,” “not here, and not me, but my colleague in Les Halles.”  My head swam as I thought about which window to go to in the largest metro station in the world, Les Halles.  “Which exit?” I asked.  “9.”  I thanked her and some hours later I wandered into Les Halles and her colleague had not had a card printed for me but used my text message to create a new pass for me.  I tested it, and it worked, and I went home.

The next morning, I got a text message saying that my card was ready at Reaumur-Sebastopol.  On my way into the office I stopped in and told them that I had already gotten a new card made the night before, and after a bit of checking, he marked that I had picked up a card and tossed the extra card made for me in the trash.

All this is to say kudos to the RATP, who are proactively trying to fix a problem: updating people’s defective Navigos at an inspection point, and even making it easy, using a day pass and text messaging.  But even when they make it easy, it isn’t necessarily frictionless.  And that’s okay.  Be patient.  It’s France.  Why are you in a rush anyway?

The image is of a Paris Metro ticket from the WWI era.

“Does anyone know any locksmiths who are not crooks?”

This was a question I posed over a year ago to a Paris & France facebook group that I help moderate that has a fair number of Parisian residents in it.  While the post yielded some laughter and plenty of chagrin, I got no direct leads from it, but mentioning it to a friend got access to a very honest one who then was quite curious as to how I got his name, as he normally only works directly with concierges/gardiennes of buildings.  The chase for an honest locksmith all started because a friend couldn’t get into her apartment.  The lock was very old and had never been replaced, and just finally gave up the ghost.  However, it gave up the ghost while she was outside and no one in our friend circle had someone reliable we could call on a Saturday night (of course, that’s when the key had to stop working).

I had had someone add a bedroom lock for me a few years back at my current apartment, and I tried him, but he was a regular weekday 9-5 type and didn’t do “emergency” visits.  That left us with the only option, which is to call one of those dreadful numbers that are left for you in the hallways of your apartment.

Every day and every week some building in Paris is getting flyered or stickered.  Some people with backpacks or trolleys go from building to building and leave cards (or small stickers) that have helpful telephone numbers printed on them, like for the police (dial 18), or the firemen (17) or for the paramedics (15).  But the other “helpful” include plumbers, electricians, and the people in question, “serrurier” or “locksmith.”

I had never called any of these numbers because in Paris, as in many other places in the world, you ask your friends for trusted providers.  There is no screening or certification process for the numbers on these flyers – they don’t even have names.  They just say, “Plombiere” and have a phone number.  No name, no hours, nothing else.

Alas, needs must, and we called one of these numbers and yes, of course, he could come, in the next two hours, for…300€.  I called around to a couple of my friends who confirmed that yes, this was standard on a Saturday night.  She bit the bullet and agreed to pay and on the way there they told her that it would cost 400€, actually.  While my friend is from the American South and hence disposed to be kindly, she’s also lived in NYC and doesn’t respond well to being scammed.  She politely informed them that she only had 300€ and could they please hurry up.  They did show up and she told me that they jimmied the lock like a couple of thugs, which they also happened to look like, and left pretty quickly after taking her money.  She was told that she would be getting a new lock for that cost, but no, that didn’t happen either.

We got a trustworthy locksmith through a friend to come Monday and install a new lock, for 120€.  He was on-time and was, unsurprisingly, not a thug.  He also didn’t “advertise in one of these flyers.

The moral of the story is dig your well before you’re thirsty.  If you don’t have names for handymen, plumbers, electricians, and locksmiths that can be trusted, ask your friends and put them away for a rainy day.  If you don’t get any from those friends, ask me, I have a few.  But don’t wait for something bad to happen, and please, please, don’t rely on those “handy” cards that show up in your mailbox every single week.  Most of the time, they are anything but.

Changing your address

Most Americans are used to being able to go online and for the cost of $1 (USPS says this is for identity verification) and the time it takes you to fill out the necessary online form you can change your address for 12 months for no additional charge.  I’m sure you can guess, the French have no reason to make it that easy for you.

Prepare the documentation

You need to bring:

  • Mail from the old address
  • Proof of your new address (a lease or QDL would be fine)
  • Money – a full year of forwarding costs 26,50€, 6 months about half that (you can pay cash or CB).
  • ID – passport or CDS is fine

When you arrive you will also need to fill out a form recapitulating all the above information.  After you hand them everything and pay, you’re done.  The process took about 5 minutes from start to finish and it only took that long because I took 2 minutes to fill out that form.  They recommend that you come at least 5 days before you want the forwarding to begin.

This visit was occasioned by my old concierge in the 17th telling me that she was leaving France and as such would no longer hold my mail and packages still going to that address for my monthly pickup and nostalgia coffee in my old haunts in the 17th.  I’ve lived in the 2nd for 3 years now so that tells you how long she’s been doing this great service for me (and getting treats for doing so!).  My concierge in the 2nd was aloof for my first year in the building but we’ve become fast friends as I’ve passed on to her old luggage I no longer wanted.  Oh well, all things have to go at some point, and it was nice to learn about this rather simple piece of administrivia.

 

The “three” Paris airports

I promised myself for ages that I wasn’t ever going to use the Beauvais Airport.  “Paris Beauvais Airport” is a farce.  Not only is Beauvais not in Paris, it’s not even in Ile de France!  It’s in Oise, not far from Chantilly, except it’s far easier to get to that chateau than it is to get to this airport.  But earlier this summer the only convenient way to get to Cluj-Napoca was to take a direct (and not terribly pricey) flight from Beauvais, so I accepted a friend’s invitation to check out the Transylvanian International Film Festival (TIFF, not to be confused with TIFF in Canada, where the “T” is Toronto).  While I was giving in for the first time in 4 years by using this airport, I took consolation that on the day I left to go back to Paris from Romania, Alain Delon was taking the opposite flight from me on WizzAir to come to TIFF for a Lifetime Achievement award.  He was proving my point: better to take a direct flight with a bit more hassle on the front end than pay (significantly) more and have a layover.

Keep in mind that this is not just a first world problem, this is a “first city” problem.  There are people in dozens of cities around Paris that travel into Paris by bus or train to take flights out of CDG.  Those of us who live here can just take local public transportation.  So, on these 80 minute bus rides I mused that this is not really a “problem” but rather just a challenge of the first world order.  It led me to want to share some thoughts on our airports with you, starting with the least convenient and least comfortable one: Beauvais (no, I will not call it “Paris Beauvais”) Airport.

Beauvais

How to get there: There are buses that leave every 20 minutes that are timed to flights.  You’ll see the timetables here.  For example, there is a flight that leaves at 08h35 going to Milan via RyanAir.  The bus leaves Paris at 05h35 and arrives in Beauvais at 06h50.  Don’t panic if you miss the 05h35 bus – you can catch the next one leaving within 20 minutes (or sooner) and still make your flight.  It’s 17€ each way, with slight discounts if you buy a roundtrip or online.  There are no other public transportation methods to get to Beauvais Airport.

Amenities: There are some okay food choices before you go through security, but it’s pretty dire on the other side (I’ve been in both terminals).  If you’re hungry, eat before you go through security.  On the other side of security you are going to face hard metal chairs which will fill up early.  If you want to sit, get there early, otherwise be prepared to stand.  The wifi is barely functional, so don’t count on it.

Main idea: It’s budget.  Don’t expect more, because you won’t get it 🙂

Orly

This is my second favorite airport – simply because I live on the Right Bank (and probably always will) and so CDG is easy for me.  If I lived on The Other Side I’m certain I would enjoy Orly, but the truth is that even the budget airlines have as many flights going out of CDG as they do ORY these days.  I’ll explain more in the CDG section.

How to get there: You can use our public transportation system, though there is a catch.  If you use the OrlyBus, which leaves frequently out of the Denfert-Rochereau Metro, your fare is covered by your Navigo (if you are a Monthly or Annual, which has all zones by default).  However, if you take the RER B to Antony you will see signs EVERYWHERE that remind you that your Navigo won’t work, and you’ll need to pay around 8€ for a 10 minute ride into Orly.  It’s the single most expensive ride, per minute, in the entire transport system.  Is it noticeably faster?  I would say it’s at least 25% faster than OrlyBus and there’s no traffic.

Amenities: Plenty of food on both sides of security, very good wifi, and comfortable places to sit and eat.

Main idea: It is the southern Paris airport, and caters to European destinations generally but it still accepts some long-haul traffic.

Charles-de-Gaulle (Roissy)

One of the earliest anecdotes I was told about life in Paris was that as tourists would ask Metro staff about how to get to “Charles de Gaulle” the staff in return would ask “Roissy ou Etoile?” as both are places you can get to in the public transportation system.  The former is the town in which the airport is housed and is still used as a term by locals.  You can get into a cab and say “Roissy, SVP.”  The latter is, of course, the plaza on which the Napoleonic Arc de Triomphe stands and onto which 12 streets flow (hence “star”).  “Etoile,” however, is not used frequently, and if you told your taxi driver you needed to go to “Etoile,” it might take him a moment, but he would figure it out eventually.

I have never understood the hate poured upon this airport by both tourists and locals alike.  I’ve flown in and out of CDG at least 30 times at this point, at all hours of the day and night, and in and out of each terminal.  It’s our best airport by far, with the most extensive services and often the cheapest and best flights.  I’ve heard horror stories, but perhaps those people are just unlucky, alas.  I’ve got a pretty large data set, and I haven’t been let down, ever.

The newest developments at CDG are Terminals 2G and 3.  The single most expensive costs for airlines outside of the plane itself and the staff to run it are the gate fees that need to be paid if you use a jetbridge.  The jetbridges are a large capital investment on the part of the airports, and can cost upwards of 200,000€ each.  The budget airlines long ago figured out that they would rather pay to rent a couple buses and a set of stairs to let you board the plane on the tarmac, away from the jetbridge.  RyanAir goes one step further by building the stairs in a pull out format into the front of their planes so they don’t even have to pay to rent the stairs.  These terminals are CDG’s hedge and competition with Orly.  By rolling out the option to budget airlines to come to CDG, the airport has continued to make itself a competitor with the German airports, which are the only real competition for continental dominance.  If London had ever managed to get its act together instead of dithering on Heathrow and spreading their traffic across 5 airports, they would be able to compete more effectively, but that’s likely to never happen, especially with Brexit inbound.

How to get there: It’s connected by train and bus and unlike Orly, there is no special 8 euro train.  Your Navigo covers both the bus and train.  The train is often jam-packed leaving Gare du Nord, and there are express trains (no stops other than the airport) that run frequently in the mornings, but it’s the fastest, cheapest connection to any of our airports, and even if you leave from the left bank I doubt you could get to Orly faster unless you lived in the 13th or 14th.  There is also the Roissybus which leaves from Opera, which can take between 45-60, and while it’s subject to traffic it has better data connectivity.

Amenities: It’s one of the most important airports in the world, so the food, shopping, and amenities are all world-class, with great wifi connectivity.  There are hotels in the terminals there should you miss a flight and need to crash, or even if you have a long layover and want a nap.  They also have a “left luggage” center for you to store your luggage should you need.

Main idea: Ignore the negative reviews.  This is our best airport, for dozens of reasons, and I’m always relieved to see when it is the best price option.  If it’s only 10-15% more than Orly, I’ll still choose it.

Photo courtesy of Steven Thompson on Unsplash