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

Getting my Carte Vitale and going to the doctor…finally

It felt futile. I knew the French didn’t operate this way, but I was feeling worn out and was reverting to American habits.  I was writing, in French, on a post-it note, the following message:

I am very happy to send another yet another check to cover my health insurance charges, but I still have not received my Carte Vitale.”

I knew as I sealed the envelope that some French functionary processing my cheque would see this note, laugh scornfully, then peel it off and place it delicately into the circular file.

So you can imagine my surprise when, one week later, I received a letter in the mail letting me know the only thing missing to process my Carte Vitale was a photo and my signature, after I had verified some information they had on me.  It is one of those times I was quite happy to be wrong.

This was the only part of my paperwork processing that had gone sideways as I left visitor status and transitioned into my profession liberale life.  But, since I’m not a frequenter of doctors anyway, it simply remained a slight irritation.  When four months had passed without any sign of my Carte Vitale, I made a copy of my translated birth certificate, as well as a copy of the original, and sent it to RSI with a pleasant cover letter.  No reply.  Another four months passed.  That’s when the wry (but polite) post-it note was written, which just goes to show you that every now and then an unexpected tactic might just work.

* * *

The visit to the doctor felt like an interstitial in an Inspector Clousseau skit.  I had crowdsourced a good doctor from my Paris network, one who had a decent command of English, though I made the appointment in French.  I made the mistake of not asking how to find the place (surely an address is good enough?) and when I walked into the vestibule of the apartment building that was the address for my doctor, I searched in vain for signage that would indicate my desired destination.

Not quite willing to admit defeat yet, I decided to climb the stairs (surely the doors will be marked?).  But by the time I reached the 3rd floor (American 4th) I realized that this was a fool’s way to figure things out.

Humbled, I turned around and went all the way back down the stairs.  Thankfully, on the ground floor, a resident was having her door locksmithed and I asked if she knew where the “medecin” was (on a side note, “doctor” is one of those words in French that doesn’t change ending whether you put a “le” or “la” in front of it).  She responded insouciantly (as if she gets this all the time) that “all the doctors are on the 5th floor.”

Bingo.

I took the elevator up to the 5th floor, found her office and checked in, roughly ten minutes after my original appointment time.  Ten minutes after that, I heard a gentle, “Monsieur Heiner, S.V.P” from the hallway and went in.

Her room was cheery and welcoming and full of books.  I felt like I was in a comfy study, not a doctor’s office.  She took out a clean sheet of paper, wrote my name down at the top, drew a straight and clean black line under it, then looked up at me, smiled, and asked how she could help me.

Puis-je parle avec vous en anglais?” I queried.  She smiled down her glasses at me.  “Yes, of course.”  “I just don’t have the vocabulary to speak well about my health in French.”  She nodded.

Ten minutes later she was asking for my Carte Vitale and 40€.  The carte goes into a card reader just like a chip-and-pin card, but with no pin.  “Cash or cheque?” she asked.  “Oh, you don’t take bank card?”  “Non,” she gave the slightest of pouts and shook her head.  “Is this the case for all medical appointments?” I asked.  “Non, it is a choice,” she said.  I had just enough cash on me: “You cleaned me out,” I laughed.

On the way out she handed me a form which designated her as my “medecin traitant” which in American parlance is “primary care physician.”  Getting this form to La Ram/RSI would make sure I got properly reimbursed.

I was off to the lab after that for some testing and I thought I had understood her directions about how to get there (it was in the same structure, just down a different hallway) and 7 minutes and a few dead ends later I was in front of the receptionist at the lab.  Twenty minutes and roughly 10 glasses of water later, I was prepared for my lab work.  When it came time to draw my blood, the nurse gazed at all the vials which had been set aside for me (around 11) and asked if there was a reason I needed all the tests.  I responded in French that I hadn’t been to a general doctor for 2-3 years and I figured why not check on everything?  We both laughed.

I went back to the waiting room and five minutes later the receptionist called me.  A swipe of my Carte Vitale and 80€ on my bank card later, and I was done.  I went home, dropped the form for my new “medecin traitant” in the mail, and went back to my day.

Two weeks later, to the day, an envelope arrived in my mailbox.  I had completely forgotten that I had some money coming back.  There was a check for 15€ against the 40€ I had paid for the visit, as if even 40€ was “too much” (as an aside here I’ve mentioned in the past that you can acquire a “mutuelle” policy that tops up even this copay so you are 100% reimbursed all the time, but I don’t go to the doctor enough to add that extra cost to my budget).

My first encounter with the French medical system: easy, painless, friendly, efficient, and inexpensive.  Against the roughly 700€ a year I pay to cover my national health insurance, not too bad.

Troubleshooting: Recipisse for Renewal

One of the things that keeps me really up-to-date in my immigration journey is the monthly newsletter of Jean Taquet.  If you don’t already get it, and you are planning to emigrate here, you’re doing it wrong.  In fact, if you haven’t subscribed to his newsletter, stop reading this article, click here, and subscribe (it’s on the right hand side).  Then come back and finish this.  I’ll wait.

So one of the things that I got from Jean’s newsletter was that appointment times were going from their normal 2-3 month lead time to something like 5-6 months.  Sure enough, as I applied for the renewal for my visa which would expire on the 20th of April, the first date listed in the system was the 27th of June!  Keep in mind the date that I made this appointment was the 12th of January.  So the soonest I got an appointment was a little over 5 months from the date of request.

What that meant was I needed “legal coverage” from the date of the expiration of my visa (the 20th of April) until the date of my appointment (the 27th of June).  Otherwise I would be showing up to my appointment with an expired visa, which wouldn’t qualify me for a renewal, but would rather mean I would get to start the whole process all over again.  It also would mean I could be stopped and given a very hard time when coming in and out of Schengen during that time if I were asked for my CDS.

So, for those of us on the right bank, we have to head to the police station in the 17th, which specifically deals with issuing recipisses, among other things.  The address is 19-21 Rue Truffaut.

There are two lines. Make sure you are in the one on the left. The one on the right, against the building, is for new applications.

I just now returned from receiving the recipisse, and I blame myself for the 2 hours I waited from 14h00-16h00.  The reason being that my visa expires sometime next week, when I’ll be in Malta, where I obviously can’t get a recipisse, so I had to go today, which was the first day I had free to head over to the 17th to wait in line.  However, this next Monday is a public holiday, so that meant the line was extra special on this Friday.

As you face the police station, you’ll want to go around to the left hand side, where the entrance is for recipisses.  Most of the people seemed to know that the line would be bad and were pretty quiet about the wait, but even I was not prepared for the fact that the line effectively did not move for 90 minutes.  Then, bizarrely, at 15h30, they took almost all of us who were in line (about 30) and assigned us numbers.  Fifteen minutes after that, my number was called and I headed up to Guichet #8, where a nice gentleman speaking Russian-accented French helped me.

The problem was, as I mounted the stairs, I realized something dreadful.  I had forgotten my passport.  I had even laid it on my desk intentionally to bring with me, but I had that moment of realization even as I began to reach for my bag to search frantically that I had, indeed, forgotten it.

Cool.  Calm.  Collected.

I said these words to myself and kept walking up the stairs.

The gentleman greeted me and I returned the greeting.  The rest of the conversation proceeded in French:

I would like to obtain a recipisse for my visa appointment, please.”

No problem.”

I slid over my convocation, which showed the date of my appointment, as well as my Carte de Sejour.  He looked at both and started typing.  A minute later:

Your passport, please.”

Cool as a cucumber, I reach in to grab my passport card.  I had obtained that passport card last year during the process of getting a new passport early.  The passport card is a handy driver’s license size card that can fit in your wallet which is valid for travel to Canada, Mexico, and many of the Caribbean Islands.  I figured, just pretend like I planned it this way.

The gentleman squinted at my card.

They are making American passports like this now?

No, sir, this is just a passport card,” and I said it like everyone knows what a passport card is.

He continued typing, but at a certain point he came to a place where it asked for a the number of the passport and the number on my passport card does not correspond to that number.  He got up.

I knew he was going to see his supervisor.

While waiting, I opened up a browser in my smartphone and went into my online cloud vault in which I keep images of all my important documents and found a digital scan of my passport and had it ready to show the gentleman when he inevitably would come back with a frowning supervisor.

They were back in two minutes.

What is the purpose of this card, sir?” she asked kindly.

Ah, it’s for travel in Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean.”  I said it just like a helpful librarian would.

Yes, but your regular passport.”

I’m so very sorry, I seem to have forgotten it,” tapping on my bag for effect.

She paused one moment, then said, “We can make a single exception this time, but if you go to your appointment like that, you’ll get kicked out!

I smiled, nodded vigorously, made all the necessary groveling noises to indicate gratitude for this kindness, while asking myself how I could have been so silly to forget my passport.  This must be my 7th or 8th time in a French immigration office.

The Russian-accented gentleman made a few more keytaps under the watchful eye of the supervisor, who then departed, smiling at me.

A photo, please,” he asked, betraying none of the fatigue that a full day of this, nonstop, must beset those in his line of work.

I handed him one of those terribly serious unsmiling photos we take for all our official documents in France.

Thank you.”

Tap, tap, tap.

Heavy old printer starts printing.  I walk out the door at just after 16h00.

So, three lessons today.

One, subscribe to Jean’s newsletter.  It’s fascinating and bailed me out of having had a very, very delayed renewal.

Two, do not be insouciant about any gap between the expiration of your visa and your date of renewal.

Three, please don’t forget your passport.

Oh, and bring a book.  I finished a short one while waiting in line, in the lovely sunshine.

The photo is by Ashley Batz, via CC-Attribution.

Troubleshooting: Internet, Leaks, and Hot Water Heaters

There are things that are very simple in France.  One of my favorites is the “set it and forget it” autodebit for most of your recurring expenses: your EDF (electricity bill), UGC pass, or your mobile phone, just to name a few.  Then there are those things that are not so simple, like getting internet.

Running water or internet?  Internet, please.

Now, I had been a bit misled on this point because establishing ultra-high speed Fibre internet at my chambre de bonne, the shoebox in the sky in the 17th where I spent my first year in Paris, had been a breeze.  I gave the internet company the necessary information, they scheduled the installation, and on the appointed day, the technician (with an apprentice) showed up, ran the wire, gave me the router, and just like that, I had some of the fastest internet in France.  Something no one ever tells you is that before you go in (or online) to establish service, you’re going to need a little code that’s just outside your apartment door.  This tells your internet provider the “location” of your apartment within the complex web that is the Parisian building ecosystem.

When I moved to the apartment I was in now, I told my landlady that I wanted the fastest internet possible.  Her first move was to ask the existing internet provider, named Free, to up the speed to Fibre.  They first sent a technician to run the wire, and then he told me when the box came it would simply be plug-and-play.  It was not.  After 2-3 weeks of back and forth on the phone and my at-the-time dreadful French (I would use phrases in French like “I am running the white wire into the green square in the back of the the black box” which I would have easily said in English as “I’m running the fiber into the incoming slot on the router.”) I gave up on Free and ordered Bouygues.  They turned out to be even more incompetent (how is this possible, I wondered) and I gave up on them faster than I gave up on Free – only giving them about a week to work.  SFR was the one who originally hooked up my Fibre back when I was living in the 17th, and so I told my landlady to order SFR.  And, just like that, I had high speed internet within a week.  SFR has been my mobile provider since I arrived and has been the most reliable internet provider I could have hoped for.  This is to say nothing of the fact that my mobile plan allows me to use my data and phone in the USA when I visit (allowing me to cancel my T-mobile mi-fi subscription, which I mentioned here).

Degats des eaux (Leaks)

So, one thing we all have in common in Paris is stories about leaks in our apartments.  When I first arrived I listened in horror as a date told me that she had had mold growing in her bedroom due to a leak for over a year and had a landlady who refused to work on the issue for her.  I’ve had a Canadian friend who persevered through numerous challenges here but finally gave up when the roof of her apartment caved in due to a leak from the upstairs neighbor.  And I myself have three different leak stories.

The first one is from my upstairs neighbor who is the near opposite of a model neighbor (think “likes to have loud parties on weeknights until 03h00”).  He was away in Brazil when a leak started to come in from, quite obviously, his shower, which is above my bathroom.  He sent in a friend to examine the issue – and his tenant – a nice Dutch kid who I was acquainted with, was very understanding – and I let him use my shower and bathroom while we tried to investigate the leak.  It kept coming, but at a very slow rate, so we figured that there must be something wrong in the walls.  He had planned a complete gutting of his apartment in 6 months, so he wanted to delay destroying the walls of his shower to fix the problem until then.  As the leak was intermittent, and I didn’t see an effective way to press the issue (a tenant, not an owner, going to war with the syndic over a slow leak dispute with an absentee owner – that just sounded exhausting) so I waited patiently.  It would be another 6 months before the relevant paperwork had been completed (his insurance people came to visit, my insurance people came to visit, I had a handyman come out to estimate – he told me I would need to wait at least 3 months after the leak ended so that the walls could dry so that he could then strip and repaint).  And my upstairs neighbor was in denial the whole time that he was at fault, until one day he, myself, and my next door neighbor, Martine, who really had some words with him during the summer of renovation, went up into his apartment.  I pointed out to him the rusty main pipe which clearly was the source of the leaks.  He had been looking in the wrong place.  He immediately quieted down and never said anything more on the subject.  Eighteen months after the leak had started, the bathroom was restored, repainted, and frankly, was even better than before – as there was a new main pipe which had been run all the way from my apartment into his.  About halfway through this process, sometime in 2015, I learned what all people in Paris who have apartments must know: this is normal.  And franchement, I had it pretty easy, as even though it was something to “endure,” I wasn’t out of pocket for anything – my neighbor’s insurance picked up the bill for the renovation of the bathroom, and the Syndic paid for the new main pipe.  And I learned something essential to know when living in Paris: a leak is always going to take a long time to solve.

The second leak occurred while the last story I told you was still in progress.  My downstairs neighbor Virginie, who I’m on very good terms with (you can really bond with your good neighbors in common opposition to the bad ones), rang my doorbell at 06h00 one morning.  I sleep like the dead so I’m rather surprised I heard the doorbell at all but she had been pressing it for a while and when I showed up looking like I had just gotten out of bed, she asked me to “Please turn off your water.”  I simply obeyed her and gently turned the master water cut-off for my apartment.  I then followed her downstairs and stared in horror at her bathroom ceiling.  It had partially collapsed and was raining water.  This wasn’t an ongoing leak, but rather looked like a bunch of water that had accumulated and finally broken through.  My eyes mentally went up into my flat and I realized that the items above that part of her bathroom were my washing machine, kitchen sink, and dishwasher, all potential culprits.  The likeliest one was the washing machine, which had been installed some months before.  Perhaps a leaky slow drip?  The plumbers for our building came later that morning (after they too, woke up) and discovered that yes, the people who had installed the washing machine had failed to tighten something, leading to a slow drip which, after 6 months, had destroyed Virginie’s ceiling.  Another series of insurance visits later (I was becoming a pro) I found out that due to the repair costing less than 1000€, that the Syndic (or was it Virginie’s insurance?) would be taking care of the repairs – I was off the hook.  Given that I was already developing the maturity from my own painful leak at this time, I took this one fully in stride.

I won’t bother you with the story of the third leak – suffice to say, I’m a leak expert 🙂

Chauffe-Non! (my hot water heater – chauffe-eau – breaks)

Last Saturday around 10h00 I got into my shower, only to discover that the hot water refused to come on.  After two minutes of penance in cold water, I got out to investigate.  My E.L.M. Leblanc water heater had a blinking red light, which could only mean one thing: it had finally died.  I say “finally” because last summer it had had a major “illness” and the repairman at the time stated that it was on its last legs.  My landlady, understandably, who had watched my oven, dishwasher, and washing machine all break down over the years (to be fair, she purchased the apartment in the mid 90s, so the fact that we were replacing in the mid 20-teens was to be expected) and then replaced them with brand new appliances, was reluctant to drop the nearly 2500€ that a new water heater would cost.  But alas, that’s what she ended up paying today when the same repairman was back, took out the old one, ostensibly to give it a decent burial, and put in one that resembled, rather like my washing machine, a spaceship.  It even had a wireless controller that uses your daily schedule to optimize the energy usage of the machine.

* * *

There’s a few things to note here.

I have an exceptional landlady.  She’s always been there for me.  I’m sure she can’t have been happy about having to replace all these items, but she knows their breaking had more to do with their age than anything I did, and my patience with these issues and her diligence with all the repairs have made for a winning team.  It doesn’t hurt that I’ve befriended all the best neighbors and always pay the rent on time, and agree on marginal increases in rent each year.  I don’t take for granted that I live in one of the best locations in the city, in the heart of the 2nd.

I have wonderful neighbors.  While my neighbor upstairs likes to pretend he is the only one in the entire building, my next door neighbor and downstairs neighbor are great people, and I’ve hosted them for dinner at my place, where they got to try my signature ginger sesame chicken on rice.  Getting to know your neighbors in Paris is a choice, but it’s a wise one considering how often you might need them (or they might need you – Martine rang me up at midnight to let her into our building a few weeks ago because the pin pad for our building was on the fritz, and she couldn’t get in).

All of these are happy endings.  As I noted above, I’ve had friends finally give up on Paris after one incident too many regarding housing.  As you’ve read before on my blog, life in a foreign country is challenging enough without everyday incidents on top of them.  Americans are used to – by and large – being able to call and get these things fixed tout de suite, because the only thing that matters in that country, other than the state of the Kardashians, is the customer always being right, whereas in the most recent incident regarding my hot water heater, I just started laughing when I saw the blinking red light, as it was SATURDAY and there would be no one who would come out to my place to fix the hot water heater.  I knew I would just have to wait until 09h00 Monday morning, and I and my guests ended up taking showers at Virginie’s over the weekend.  Which reminds me, I need to bring her some speculoos cookies from Belgium, where I am writing this.

Like quicksand, the more you struggle, the worse it will be.  Last year I started doing mindfulness meditations using Headspace (here’s a link for “take 10” which gives you 10 free meditations to try it out) and it only helped reinforce a personal rule that, like the large breakfasts I cook, is out of place in France: refusing to complain.  I won’t even allow myself to complain in my head, privately.  Complaining accomplishes nothing (when you say this to French people 1 out of every 4 or so will cite some “scientific study” in which it was shown that complaining helps you be less stressed.  Color me skeptical.) and actually I think complaining makes things worse.  In all of your challenges in French life – not just with immigration but in living in apartments, it’s always best to remember how very first world these problems are.  So your hot water heater is out.  Boo hoo.  At least you have running water into your Parisian apartment.  So there’s a leak.  Big deal.  Get over it.  Your internet isn’t working.  Wah.  Go to a Starbucks and get it for free in the meantime.

Don’t focus on your problems.  Focus on solutions.  Doing so gives you more time to wander in the Louvre, enjoy a coffee, and walk with a friend through our picturesque streets and parks, which are some of those simple pleasures that I wish everyone in Paris could enjoy as often as I do.

Three Years On, Part IV: Where is home for the immigrant?

A few days ago I began my fourth year in Paris.  I wanted to use the milestone to share some reflections on how I have changed and ongoing tips on how to make the move yourself.  This is the final article in a series of four.  Here are the first, second, and third.  

“It will be nice to be home for a month, right?”  My friend smiled, expecting an affirmative rejoinder.  I smiled too, as I knew what he meant, but I gently replied, “The US is home for my family, but Paris is my home now.”  He nodded, though his countenance said, “I want to talk to you more about that sometime,” and I’m sure my smile betokened a willingness to do so.  But I haven’t fully articulated through those thoughts, even mentally, until recently.

My recent month Stateside was full of activity – one sister got married at the start of it and another one had a baby at the end of it and all the while I carried on running my businesses while catching up with old friends.

Home.  In the seven years I lived in Kansas City it wasn’t long before I felt that warm sensation upon returning there from a trip.  Home was near family.  Home was where my friends lived.  Where my business was growing.  Where my staff worked.  Home where was where my bed was – where I had a fireplace and where I could quietly cook breakfast.  But as I look at these characteristics, even now, I realize I am describing comfort.  And yes, a component of home is comfort.  But that’s only part of it.  That’s the present.

Home.  There’s also the past.  You need to feel a rootedness and a belonging.  But that was a tenuous position for me in KC.  Yes, I finished an undergraduate degree there and built a productive company.  But it was self-made.  Perhaps that desire to connect with the past was why I loved St. Louis so much.  Not only did I have relatives buried in that city, but in the one year I lived there I felt the comfort of knowing that when a branch of my family had emigrated from Europe (from England, Ireland, and Alsace), that they settled in Southern Illinois and the St. Louis area.  Yes, Kansas City was in Missouri, but the St. Louis side of the state was actually tied up with my family history too.  Rootedness and community – people who know your name, your habits, your history, and your family.  That’s home too.  That’s the past.

Home.  Home is the future too.  I have some truly lifelong friends in KC that I cherish time with whenever I visit.  As I built my life in that area all sorts of ideas were mooted as I considered a lifelong stay.  The University of Missouri at Kansas City had a fully funded Ph.D. in Entrepreneurship that would have offered a leisurely career in academia, but it didn’t excite me, and given my experience teaching a couple semesters as an adjunct in an MBA program, it was clear that the hierarchical setup in a university setting wasn’t for me.  I considered politics (a sure indication of the naive 20-something) because I held (and still hold) practical nonpartisan civic planning principles that I think have wide appeal.  I thought about buying into businesses, and went so far as preliminary discussions with some principals of those companies.  But none of it inspired me in the visceral manner that Paris did.

Home.  Knowing you are where you belong now, with roots in the past, and a future to look forward to.  That all comes together for me in Europe, in Paris, deep in my bones.

* * *

Two weeks ago I visited the Museum of Immigration out on the edges of the 12th.  It’s a remarkably ugly building, but the exhibits and information are good, particularly in explaining the flow of different immigrants to France – some for reasons of war and violence, others for economic betterment.

As I took in the mountain of data I considered my own case.  I wasn’t fleeing war, as so many are in Europe these days because of incoherent US-led actions and policies that managed to destabilize the Middle East and North Africa.  I wasn’t seeking a better life economically.  Indeed my experience at the time of just selling a business should have encouraged me to stay.  I had moved to a US city with no connections, and with some of my own funds, a couple investors, and a co-founder, built a company from nothing to one that successfully sold and transitioned to a new owner.  I could simply wash, rinse, and repeat if I chose, with little interference and regulation from the US government.

There was also my family’s disapproval.  They, who had already considered me an absentee uncle and brother would be even more aggrieved.  But that was in part my fault for not successfully explaining to them before how differently I weighed my own personal desires and ambition against family and community pressures.

When I immigrated to the United States in 1988, I was already a citizen, but the move wasn’t my choice.  In 2013 I came to France as a noncitizen, but entirely by choice.  And like many immigrants before me, I jumped through legal hoops while setting up the infrastructure for my own businesses to be based in my new country.  I didn’t come here to “get a job.”  I came here to build a life.

I’ve always been an optimist, but it’s only recently I’ve realized that immigration – of whatever kind or character – is a supreme act of hope, not just for the “better life” which is, seemingly the only reason ever mentioned in news stories about immigration, but because it is such a big ask to make and create a new home.  Getting a new job, a new house, learning the ins and outs of a city – these things are not so hard.  But building another home – tying those long, colorful, and winding threads of past, present, and future into a coherent tapestry, that’s hard.  That’s perhaps why those of us who weren’t born here love it so much, because we don’t take any part of this experience for granted.

As the year ends, I would challenge you to consider whether you are truly living at “home.”  And if not, why not?  2017 is waiting to challenge you.

The photo is from my own instagram feed, from the day I officially moved out of America, December 10, 2013.

Book Club: My Life in France, by Julia Child

Julia Child is best and rightly known as the woman who brought French cooking to America in an accessible and sensible way. You may know her through her recipes and her famous TV show, but this book, My Life in France, is all about the woman herself – her life in Paris and Marseille, and other places throughout Europe as WWII ended and the Cold War began. You would hardly guess that she worked for the OSS, which was the forerunner of today’s CIA – but in a way that’s believable as she really did “infiltrate” into an American kitchen that was focused on frozen foods and items you could make out of a box or tin.

It was also fascinating to hear her describe the French and their ways – it reads like it could have been written today, even though Julia is describing post-war France, almost 60 years ago!

Here’s a story she recounts about her sister Dort and struggles with French:

“Monsieur; voulez-vous couper mes chevaux avant ou apres le champignon?” The hairdresser looked at her quizzically while the ladies under the hairdryers broke into laughter. What Dort had been trying to so earnestly ask was: “Sir would you like to cut my hair before or after the shampoo?” But it came out as: “Sir, would you like to cut my horses before or after the mushroom?”

She also reflects on the reason why she felt so at home in this country:

“I looked out the window. I had come to the conclusion that I must really be French, only no one had ever informed me of this fact. I loved the people, the food, the lay of the land, the civilized atmosphere, and the generous pace of life.”

On the French attitude towards “modernizing,” which I laughed out loud reading:

“The individualistic, artisanal quality of the French baffled the men Paul called the “Marshall Plan hustlers” from the USA. When American experts began making “helpful” suggestions about how the French could “increase productivity and profits,” the average Frenchman would shrug, as if to say: “These notions of yours are all very fascinating, no doubt, but we have a nice little business here just as it is. Everybody makes a decent living. Nobody has ulcers. I have time to work on my monograph about Balzac, and my foreman enjoys his espaliered pear trees. I think, as a matter of fact, we do not wish to make these changes you suggest.”

Indeed – it is this contrarian view against the rush of globalization and frenetic intemperance combined with a balanced attitude of “enough” that attracts so many of us to France.

Of course, this is a book by Julia Child and you will find yourself, if you have even the slightest inclination towards cooking, jotting down recipes or tips she casually sprinkles throughout the book.

It’s a great read, with quite a few photos, many of which were taken by her loving and devoted husband Paul Child.

A version of this article originally appeared on my Goodreads page.  If you like what I wrote here, consider tipping.

Three Years On, Part III: Cost of Living

Next month I begin my fourth year in Paris.  I wanted to use the milestone to share some reflections on how I have changed and ongoing tips on how to make the move yourself.  This is the third in a series of four.  You can find the first one here and the second one here.

People are always a bit shocked when I say it’s “not that expensive” to live here.  I say that because I am thinking of places like NYC, SF, Tokyo, Hong Kong, London, etc. where it really is shockingly expensive to live.  Paris isn’t, and rather than just tell you my “feelings” I have put together a spreadsheet for you based on my basic expenses across the last 3 years (I have not included weekend trips/vacations because that really varies per person).

Category Year 1 (2014) Years 2-3 (2015-2016) Comments
Rent 8 m^2, 650€/mo 39 m^2, 1350€/mo both apartments furnished
Location 17eme 2eme I don’t see the point of living in the suburbs; Paris is worth paying for.
Taxe d’habitation n/a 80€/mo once you switch to a working visa you are fully responsible for this
Utilities & internet 40€/mo 80€/mo sometimes these are included
Food 100€/mo 200€/mo in Year 1 that was 90% canned, whereas now it’s 100% fresh
Cellphone 70€/mo 70€/mo I’ve never skimped on this because I make a lot of calls to the US and travel in Europe a lot. This package comes with unlimited calls to the USA and 20 gigs of data which I can use anywhere in Europe AND the USA.
Health Insurance 35€/mo 70€/mo I now participate in the French Health care system so those payments are quite a bit more than my “foreigner’s insurance” (roughly double) but it means I am fully covered.
Renter’s Insurance 20€/mo 22€/mo some landlords don’t require this, but the prefecture almost always does.
Metro 25€/mo 75€/mo In my first year I just tried to make do with the occasional ticket purchase, but it’s just too much nuisance. I don’t use the metro all the time, but the annual pass gives me access to all of Ile de France for free on the weekends
Legal and Accounting 100€/mo 100€/mo Unless you possess a very special set of skills you will need help filing your French tax return as well as dealing with specific questions on your dossier for the prefecture
Etc 100€/mo 200€/mo this is for haircuts or clothing or spending money and varies per person.   I’m a single male in my 30s with strong minimalist tendencies, so keep that in mind.
Monthly Totals 1140€/mo 2197€/mo you can see that as a visitor, it’s not a big burden if you’re willing to sacrifice (e.g. canned food), but when you’ve decided to settle in here, it’s going to cost a lot more.
Annual Totals 13680€/year 26364€/year The French government will require access to more than 13k€ per year for the long term stay visa. I’m just pointing out you won’t actually need more.

What are some expenses you didn’t plan for?  Feel free to share in the comments below.