Yes, you should get a French bank account

A friend recently wrote an account of her experience getting a bank account in France and it reminded me to do an update of my various thoughts on this topic beyond my first time getting a personal account, a business account, and the legislation which is the reason for difficulties Americans face on this front: FATCA.  The most important reason to get a French account is that it’s the only way you may hit a snag on your renewal.  Not having a French account signals a lack of integration into society.  You may be able to squeak by with something else, which readers have received inconsistent results with, so the advice I give is to do what definitely works, not “let’s try this.”  Hope is not a strategy, and certainly a poor idea when it comes to renewing visas in France.

While major French banks are understandably reluctant to give a US citizen a bank account because of the high cost of compliance with FATCA, if you hold a residence card (whether a sticker in your passport or the hard card in your wallet), you can, respectfully and calmly, demand a bank account as a right.  Yes, there are low-cost online banks that have no branches, like Boursorama, that will eject you from the application process the minute they find out you are a US citizen (trust me, I tried).

My recommendations, based on personal experience, are BNP Paribas and Societe Generale, in that order.  They both have excellent online banking in the form of web access and brilliant native apps for your smart phones.  My counselors have always been available when I’ve needed help and my cards consistently work in countries all over the world, often offering an extra layer of security by needing me to verify purchases over a certain amount via entering my password on the app on my phone.

What I’ve been told secondhand by readers is that both LCL and HSBC are also willing to grant accounts to US citizens, and feel free to pitch your bank of choice in the comments below.

When you stop in at a bank you’ll almost always be making an appointment for a future date, as the bankers are often booked some time in advance.  If you don’t feel comfortable speaking the entire time in French, make sure to ask for someone who does speak English, and many of the staff do.  They will often provide you with a list of what to bring, which will include, but not be limited to:

  • Passport
  • Carte de Sejour (1st year visa holders – this is the sticker in your passport, everyone else – it’s the hard card)
  • EDF or ADH and/or lease
  • Proof of income
  • Most Recent Tax Filings – both US and French

and expect to pay around 15-20€ a month for even a basic checking account.  It’s part of the deal.

They also won’t let you pick your PIN, but I’ve found this to be a smart policy, because it doesn’t allow a thief who correctly guesses one pin access to all your cards, which Americas tend to use the same PIN for.

An intermediate step in the right direction, if you want to be able to easily transfer in Euros, pay your rent, etc., is a free Borderless Account from Transferwise that allows you to hold multiple currencies with no monthly rate and even includes a free contactless debit card.  But it is not clear to me that statements from a Borderless Account will pass muster with French immigration and no reader has yet let me know that such a strategy works.  The euro-denominated account in the Borderless Account is based in Germany.  I absolutely love Transferwise and use it for other transactions outside of my personal and business ones, which I use my French accounts for.

To rent or to own?

The most important fact to begin this discussion – which is directed at those who wish to live in Paris, not those who wish to buy rental properties in Paris – is that the current interest rates for fixed mortgages is between 2-3%.  When interest rates are so low, buying becomes attractive, even in Paris.  Add in the fact that tenants of properties have right of first refusal on a property to be sold and buying becomes easier.  But attractive and easy does not necessarily equal simple.  There are a few things to keep in mind.

Selection

I would not recommend buying in a neighborhood that you have never lived in.  With Airbnb and other such options, you have the ability, like never before, to stay some weeks in a neighborhood or arrondissement to get a sense of the scale and speed of it.  Meet the shopowners.  Take a coffee.  Walk around.

Primary vs Secondary

One of the ways that the French state discourages real estate speculation is by levying a significantly higher tax on the sale of a secondary residence vs your primary one.  The “buy and flip” model doesn’t really work here, as a result.

Roots

If, like me, you reject modern notions like “starter home” or the idea that your home is an “investment” that you can sell, like a piece of art or a watch, when the price is right, selection becomes even more important.  What are my neighbors like?  The noise level?  Cleanliness?  This is where you will spend most of your time so it should be better than just tolerable.

Paperwork

The dossier you prepare when you’re renting will remind you of that for the prefecture, except unlike at the prefecture, where if you follow directions you stand a good chance of gaining what you went in there for, when renting you’re competing against others in a zero sum game – if you get the apartment, they can’t, and vice versa.  You’re going to need:

  • Photocopies of your ID(s) = passport + carte de sejour
  • Photocopy of your CDI or CDD if employed, as well as your last three payslips
  • If you are self-employed, your most recent tax filings and/or bank statements from your business account can serve as substitutes for the CDI + payslips
  • Your last three rental receipts from your last landlord, whether that was in France or elsewhere
  • If you think you need a guarantor, you’ll need their EDF and the last three payslips as well

You’ll make multiple copies of this dossier, both in hard copy and digitally, so that you can send them in the format that your potential landlord prefers.

The French, because the law is so dramatically in favor of tenants, really want assurance that they will have the rent reliably paid and in full, and as such will usually pick the highest-earning dossier.  As such there is a common practice of forging/using a friend’s high income pay slip to “enrich” your dossier.  Many Parisians know at least one person who has done this to get an apartment, if they have not done so themselves!

In extreme cases some landlords will require a year’s rent to be held as escrow as security against a default – but I’ve only read about this, and have never actually met anyone who had to do this.

The guarantor (or cosigner, as we would call it in America) is the most frequently-used device, however, for the risk-averse landlord, and a friend recently told me that despite the dual incomes of her and her husband which totaled far above the rule-of-thumb “three times the monthly rent” at least one potential landlord asked her if she also had a guarantor.

All leases in France are governed by the 2015 Alur Law and you cannot simply make up your own lease.  If you want to do the simplest thing, which I did while negotiating my recently-signed three year lease, just click here to use a free template which conforms to the law.

Some pricing I’ve seen

Apart from the Syndic, which I discuss below, there’s also property tax for owners, which is really pretty low – on my apartment it’s around 1000€ a year.  I often stop when passing by an immobilier (real estate agent) on a Paris street, just to get a sense of prices in whatever neighborhood I’m in, and to continue to hone my sense of the market overall.  I am sharing these three examples to give you a sample:

6 rue Guenot, in the 11th, 2 bedrooms, 27 square meters, 240,000€

161 rue des Pyrenees, in the 20th, 3 bedrooms, 52 square meters, 374,000€

5 passage du chemin vert, in the 11th, 4 bedrooms, 94 square meters, 810,000€

Yes, I know I’m exposing a Right Bank bias, but I’ve never seriously looked on the other side of the river.

Last Things

When you become an owner, not just a renter, apart from the maintenance of the apartment itself, you will be subject to charges from the Syndic – similar to an HOA in America – that can sometimes be very costly.  They recently installed some new piping in the hallways of our apartment and my landlady’s share was 15,000€!  If you don’t pay, the Syndic can start a legal action against you, though it is so ponderously slow that you’ve got enough time to put together the cash you need before it ever goes to court.  Your monthly fees can be around 50€/square meter per year, so my 53 square meter apartment costs around 2650€ in Syndic fees – which are paid by the owner, not by you.  The Syndic is usually hired by the association of co-owners of the building – i.e. all of the separate owners – and is a managing agent of sorts.  They ensure that maintenance is done, that the building is cleaned, and if necessary, hires a guardian/concierge (our building doesn’t have one, though my last two apartments did, and we seem to get along fine without one).

I’ve said before that I’d like to get a small place just outside Paris for the occasional weekend retreat, but with the recent signing of this lease, and with my landlady’s indication that she may very well wish to sell at the end of the term, I may be in the market to buy in Paris sooner than I expected.  But the dominant thought on my mind as I signed the lease last week was that it would be three years before I would need to think about either my living or immigration situation again, and that allows me time to focus on other, less paperwork-intensive, subjects.

Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash

Journees de Patrimoine (Skip the Elysee)

Around this time last year I made plans with two friends to visit the Elysee Palace.  Once a year, in September, the French celebrate Heritage Days (les Journees de Patrimoine) and many places are open to the public which are not normally so, including the President’s residence, the Elysee.  While we thought we would “beat the crowd” by getting in line at 7am, two hours before they started letting people in, many, many other people thought similarly and we were in a very long line even though it was still dark when we found the line of people snaking through the edges of the Champs-Elysees, near the American Embassy.

Heritage Days started as a French idea, in 1984.  The Ministry of Culture sponsored something called “La Journee Portes Ourvertes” and it was so successful that other countries started their own versions.  The Netherlands, Sweden, Ireland, Belgium, and Scotland all held their own events until in 1991 the Council of Europe created an EU-wide “European Heritage Days” which happen the second weekend of September each year.

I had just by chance been out of Paris the past couple years on those dates so last year I decided to seize my chance and asked some of my French friends if they had tried to go to the Elysee before and most had not, had never been, actually, but one who had told me to get there at least two hours early.  “It’s worth it,” she nodded.  I took her advice, and yet it was six hours before I stepped foot inside the former royal residence.

Yeah, six hours.  There were some security precautions that had been put in place since my friend had visited, including body pat-downs and as such the wait was truly mind-bending.  In fact, I would say that my main cultural experience was witnessing so many French wait for so many hours.  It was a miracle!

All joking aside, I say skip the Elysee because there are so many other places you can go where the crowd won’t be as absurd and the wait won’t be so long.  Why use the whole day for one building?  When you do finally get into the Palace you can stop and linger without too much harrying from the staff, but to be honest, it’s not a very large or impressive house, by Head of State standards, though perhaps that’s the point of the “one of us” stances of the 3rd-5th Republics.  Need ideas?  Click here to be dazzled.  When making your plans, try not to buzz all over town, but rather stay in one or two adjacent arrondissements.  You’ll enjoy yourself more and what’s the rush?  You live here now, so there’s always next year to hear that concert, take that tour, or see the Hotel de Salm (one of my targets for next year, as I’m out of town for this year’s festivities).

No, I don’t have a French Driver’s License (and probably never shall)

I hadn’t written about this before, but a number of people have emailed me about it more recently and I also just finished a book called French License by Joe Start which chronicles just how challenging it can be to get one of these.

So, why haven’t I written about it?

I’m writing this article while visiting Singapore, the city-state I was born into and where my mother’s entire side of the family lives.  It has a world-class public transportation system and I was taking the metro (known here as the MRT) by myself as early as 6 years old.

I love living in a city where not only do I not need a car, but even the costs of owning a car are a deterrent to ownership.  Apart from purchasing, there’s a flurry of licensing fees and taxes that go along with standard car costs, not to mention parking fees and gasoline that costs at least double what it does in America.  Did I mention the ticket-happy Parisian meter maids?

In the five years I’ve lived in France I’ve driven precisely 28 days, on vacations in Bordeaux, Provence, and the Basque country, as well as a work trip in Brittany.  These are all places you cannot truly get around without a personal vehicle.  Each time I drove I rented a vehicle using my American license.  In fact, the one time I got pulled over in France (I stupidly overtook a cop in a small town – it didn’t look like a cop car) I decided to pull the “dumb foreigner” act and spoke English, handing over a US license, all while looking suitably scared, penitent, and compliant.  They had no wish to do paperwork as they thought I would probably never pay the fine anyway, and there doesn’t seem to be a mechanism to chase down foreigners (as they imagined I was).  I promised to pay more attention to the signs and slowly drove off with a smile and a wave.  Driving a vehicle without a French license is letter of the law illegal, as I am a resident of France past my one year grace period, but my insouciant attitude on the matter confirms that indeed, I have adopted the French spirit entirely. 🙂

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but…

So assuming that, like me, you love that hole in your budget where auto expenditures used to go, but are constrained by your circumstances and hence need a car and requisite license of your own, what are your choices?

The easy way

Trade in your US license during your first year in France.  The following states offer a straight swap of your license for a French one: Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.  If getting a driver’s license in France had been a priority in my first year I would have swapped my Kansas license then and then did what I advise my visa consulting clients to do, report their US license as lost (and it honestly was – lost to the hands of the French government) and get a new one.  Two licenses for the price of two.

The hard way

It’s too depressing to relate, and why bother when the US government has a handy PDF that you can peruse at your leisure?  If you want to get more depressed, read the book I referenced above.  The work I’ve done at the prefecture for French residency seems to pale in comparison to the work for a license, and given that 1/3 of the French nation doesn’t have a license, the written and practical portions, as well as the cost of the schools themselves, drive most people off from the process entirely, and keep in mind that these are native speakers who play games like Mille Bornes from their youth and have insight into just how arcane and impossible the French licensing process can be.

But why be depressed at all?  France’s infrastructure is advanced enough for you not to have to have a private car, and with services like BlaBlaCar more closely connecting us all the time, you won’t need to.  In a driverless future, no one will need driver’s licenses, and that future will come to France, albeit slowly, I’m sure.

Change your address? Not so fast!

It didn’t seem that long ago that I penned an article explaining the few steps necessary to change your address.  So, as a “veteran” of the process, I thought it would be just as simple to do it again.  Not exactly.

The Post Office

As I did the last time I wanted to change my address, I showed up at La Poste with a copy of an EDF from my new address as well as proof of my old address.  The clerk helping me seemed fairly new to the whole process, and after 15 minutes of typing in my information, he asked his supervisor to certify the form, and the supervisor squints at the computer monitor and says in French, “Oh, sir, this is much easier to do at home on your computer.”  “Why would I do that at home, I’m already here,” I responded in French.  Then he did it.  The shrug.  “It’s better,” he said, and walked away.

No need to get upset, I thought.  I just walked home and went to the La Poste website.  I laughed out loud at the tagline it sported: “Simplifier la vie.”  Oh yeah, you’re making it really simple.  I clicked through to get to this page.  I clicked the 6-month option to find out that I was required to create a La Poste account to do this.  Remember to smile, I thought.  It’s just France being French.  I created the account, filled out the contract for the change, paid, and got a confirmation.  At the bottom of the confirmation, in fine print, it told me that I needed to take this printout, with a copy of my ID, to the post office, to certify the contract.

I looked at the Paddington Bear on my desk with disbelief, asking him to commiserate.  But, remembering where I lived, within a couple days I duly showed up as required and 2 minutes after I got to the front of the line my contract was certified.  But, that was just my personal change of address.

INSEE

You might remember that I did a post on the alphabet soup of agencies that entered my life once I switched over to Profession Liberale.  The most important one is INSEE.  Their database serves as the clearing house for all the other agencies connected to your professional French life.  Your postal change of address is insufficient for INSEE.  You essentially need to do a professional change of address, using this exciting form.  Send that in to INSEE, or if you’re like me and like to outsource things like this, you can simply ask your business accountants to file it for you before or after tax season.  For a fee, of course.

The Banks

I’ll start with the easy one first.  My French business bank is BNP Paribas.  I opened it post-FATCA, but I had been in France for years at that point and I had a working visa, so despite the extra forms I had to fill out as a “US person” the account was opened without question on my first visit.  Additionally, BNP Paribas has amazing tools (disclosure: I’ve done some contract work for them so I really got some insight into how tech-forward they are) and technology and it showed in this simple desire to change my address.

I was able to change my address inside the online banking suite within two minutes.  I was also able to change agencies.  I then ordered a new chequebook with my new address.  This all happened with zero friction and to be honest, a fair amount of (pleasant) surprise on my part.

Not so with Societe Generale, holders of my personal bank account, and one of my very first “paperwork” experiences in France.  They required me to go to my original branch, in the 17th, with proof of my new address (EDF bill) that was from the last 90 days as well as ID, etc.  This only permitted me to change my address.  There’s no way to do it online.  “And, may I change my agency, too?” I asked in French with a smile, thinking, maybe it will be that easy.  “Non, monsieur,” she gravely replied to the lady who had dutifully stamped my address change dossier just moments before.  “You’ll need to go to that branch and request the change yourself.”  I laughed.  She was a bit bemused, but I gave her a smile and a bon journee and out I went.

I live in the 19th now and there’s a Societe Generale very close to my house, and I went there to request an agency change.  “You have to make an appointment,” the nice young man told me.  Of course I have to make an appointment, I thought.  It’s not like you’re my bank and have been for the last four years.  To be fair, this is simply politesse.  The new branch wanted to “get to know me” so they could serve me better, and to do that I’d need to come by, have a coffee, etc.  Fine with me.  I made an appointment and brought everything I thought I would need (and as usual, even stuff I didn’t think I would need) and fifteen minutes into our appointment he was on the phone with someone higher up asking about “US persons.”  I knew he was discussing FATCA stuff, but I was a bit puzzled as SG had been filing my FATCA paperwork for years now.  “I need you to bring your French tax return,” he said.  I handed it to him, from the pile of “stuff they may ask me for.”  “Okay, give me a week or so and I’ll get back to you.”  A week came and went.  No word.  I called and left a message.  No return.

I reached out to a banker I knew at my old branch in the 17th and asked her what the hold up was.  She made a couple calls and found out that the branch manager at the branch I wanted to transfer to didn’t want to accept an American into her branch.  The implication was obvious to me: she would have to do all my paperwork and be responsible for me and she didn’t want that merci beaucoup.  I laughed as the banker who had chased up the intelligence told me about her refusal.  “But you’re the same company,” I switched into English as I didn’t have the French to properly express my confusion.  “I know, I will talk to my branch manager to talk to her.”  That was four weeks ago, and even the friendly banker seems to have forgotten how to reply to my email.

I’ve decided to let it be.  There are only a few functions that require you to visit your branch (I’ve detailed a couple above!), and that branch in the 17th is in a lovely neighborhood, my very first one in Paris, and I can always find other useful things to do if I need to head out there.  But it’s just an example of two banks with differing approaches.  One, stuck in revered (and inefficient) Gallican ways, the other, daring to be a bit more Anglo-Saxon and customer-friendly.  One will receive my undisputed recommendation when friends ask where to open a bank account.  The other?  Well…let’s see if I ever get a call or email back.

As for that pesky French bank account question, I’ve been doing some research to get more updated information to you than I furnished in my previous articles here and here.  As an intermediate free solution with minimal paperwork, you could open a Transferwise Borderless account.  That will get you a euro-denominated IBAN as well as a free debit card so that you can start enjoying the privileges of a French/European bank account right away.  I’ve discussed Transferwise as an easy way to send or transfer money to France (I think it’s by far the cheapest way to send money to France) in the past but that assumes a European/French account to transfer funds to, and I wrote that article before Transferwise created their multi-denominational Borderless account (you can hold up to 40 different currencies), which is awesome (I have one as a backup in case anything ever happens to my French accounts).  Once my research is complete, I hope to have some updated options and scripts for you to carry into a bank with you to open your own French account.

In the meantime, remember to smile and consider: this is France.  This is how they do things here.  Love it or leave it 🙂

What I love about America

I am now, and always will be, an American.  Yes, I’m pursuing French citizenship, but getting that citizenship won’t make me French any more than it would unmake me as an American.  I know I will always be a strange creature of these two worlds, with vestigial influences of the country of my birth, Singapore.

In my travels as this strange creature, I discuss the land where I spent more than two decades of my life with fellow travelers and these days I often find myself focusing on its positives, rather than negatives. And truly, there are things I feel America has in exceptional quality and quantity.

National Parks

The concept of National Parks is one we take for granted worldwide now, but most don’t know it was something truly popularized by the United States, something historian Ken Burns calls “America’s best idea.”  Its first “public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” was established in Yellowstone in 1872.  The early advocates of this idea in America noted that Europe had cathedrals and castles, but America had remarkable natural beauty, still unspoilt in many places, and that those places needed protection and promotion.

President Theodore Roosevelt gave the movement (and the Park Service) a grand push during his two terms in office: 5 new national parks, 18 national monuments, and over 100 million acres of national forest, just to name a few initiatives.  Today there are 392 National Parks, monuments, battlefields, seashores, etc.  This idea hopped across the pond to Europe and before long there were legislative protections in place for what had existed under the law of common sense for centuries.

Can-Do Spirit

“You can be or do anything you want!” is the quote that so many Europeans have given me, in one form or another, when I’ve asked why they immigrated (or at least attempted to immigrate) to America.

To understand the attractiveness of this idea, you have to understand the “good enough” life so available in the most prosperous countries of Europe: single-payer health care, 30 days of vacation, and unbelievable benefits even for entry-level jobs complemented by a comprehensive social safety net should you find yourself unemployed.  Life is truly “good enough” in so many ways.  Yet, what America promises, to those who hear that siren call, is “more.”

Conversely, in America, a country built by immigrants of so many nations, the rags-to-riches story born of “not good enough” is commonplace and highly coveted.  Almost all Americans, at every socioeconomic level, know stories of those who have started with nothing or less than nothing rising to a life of power and privilege.  It is assumed and repeated in America: you can do anything you put your mind to, if you work hard enough.  The Europeans, in possession of elements of the good life for so many centuries, never conceived of “hustle” in its Gary Vaynerchukian incarnation.

This optimism is still alive and well in America, and is radiant enough to be seen and felt oceans away.  It’s a spirit that led me to build the businesses I did that allowed me to finally make it to France.  I believe in the can-do spirit of America and the promise of results awaiting your hard work, because I experienced it myself.  America does not have a monopoly on this spirit, but it does have it in abundance, almost as a natural resource.

Regional Cuisines and Spirits

One of the classroom exercises we had one day in French class was to discuss, in detail, how to prepare cuisines from our country.  My teacher rolled her eyes and good-naturedly prepped the class for “here iz how you make a burger!”  But I surprised everyone, walking them step-by-step through the minimum 3-4 hours necessary to make authentic Louisiana gumbo, with all the ingredients and care such a dish needs.  I love Cajun cuisine (and the accent!) and can think of so many other regional American foods I enjoy: fried chicken in Mississippi, shrimp and grits in the Carolinas, Key Lime pie in Florida, barbecue in Kansas City and Texas, cornbread in Nashville, deep-dish pizza in Chicago, street hot dogs in NYC, lobster rolls in Maine, clam chowder in Boston, and those fish tacos of San Diego, just to name a few.  These are truly munchables of my heart, to say nothing of the pleasures of bourbon, a quintessential American spirit that has its name from the French royal family that gave assistance during the Revolutionary War.

The cliche of “burgers, pizzas, and hot-dogs” is not untrue: there’s a lot of bad food in America.  But if you take even a brief moment to look, especially these days, you’ll find local food made and sourced with love and care, and you’ll find these dishes not just memorable for their flavors but delightful in their simplicity.

Taxes (Encore!)

This was the year I finally found my rhythm filing in two countries.  I did my US business taxes in March, my US personal taxes in April (though I needed some French income estimates to complete them), my French business taxes in May, and my French personal taxes right before June.  Yes, Americans, from the country ostensibly founded on a tax revolt, always get to file taxes, no matter where they live in the world.

Everyone has different strategies and situations and how much you actually pay in taxes is down to how well-constructed those strategies are.  What I have been reminding people in previous articles over the years (here and here) is that the moment you pass 183 days in a calendar year of living in France, you transform from being a regular resident to a fiscal resident, and as such, are required to file taxes, even if you are here on a visitor visa and have earned no French income.  As I often say, the French love documentation and paperwork and the Ministry of Finance doesn’t share records with OFII in this regard and even if they did, they wouldn’t care.  They want their own proof of your fiscal liabilities (or lack thereof) during your stay here.

If you aren’t an accountant who speaks French and also knows French accounting law, I would strongly advise against self-filing.  If you need the recommendation of someone reliable, my accountant has been filing for me since my first fiscal year in Paris and now handles my file that includes French income and tax liability.

I’ve also found new French business accountants, who have been a dream to work with and delivered the kind of customer service that I had hoped for when I signed up with the last firm I used (who I have severed ties with).

I often hear from people who mention in their emails that “no one ever told me about this” and while I fully understand that sentiment, as I had to be told about this issue myself, you can’t have that attitude when emigrating to a new country, or even staying there just a few years.  Do not wait “to be told” about anything.  You are not a customer in a store.  You are a visitor and/or future possible citizen.  Read everything you can and continuously educate yourself.

Further, be assured that as cryptocurrency begins making greater inroads and banks continue to become more rigorous in their compliance, that taxes will follow you, wherever you might be domiciled.  You won’t get to skate out of a tax system simply because you aren’t living in your country of nationality and/or because you’re a legal resident of a country in which you’re a foreigner.  Be proactive.  It will go a long way to preventing unpleasant messages in long white envelopes from either the IRS or the Ministry of Finance.

Osteo & Chiro

“We’re not covered by the French insurance system.”

I was only slightly surprised when my osteopath said this to me at the end of our visit.  As someone who has spent most of his life outside of a single-payer healthcare system, and has confessed that he only goes to the doctor occasionally, I expect to always pay a little something when I have medical needs in France.

Part of my lower spine had been troubling me for several weeks and my exercise regimen wasn’t helping it to heal – but stopping exercise, even for just a couple weeks, was not an option I was willing to consider.  In a past life, upon feeling this way, I would have immediately gone to my chiropractor in the US.  Those visits were covered by my US insurance of the time.  But I never had insurance in a post-Obamacare America.  I left the US in 2013, before the changes to the insurance system began, and as such, have no idea whether chiropractic care is still covered in the way it might have ben back then.  But whatever might be the policies of the US insurance companies, it seemed that chiropractors really didn’t have a presence in France in general, and in Paris in particular, and so I made an appointment with “the next best thing,” an osteopath.

What’s the difference?

The osteopath who saw me took a few minutes to quickly parse the two disciplines.  “It’s a vast oversimplification, but you might say that chiros are more exclusively spinally focused, whereas in addition to the spine we are concerned with respiratory and digestive issues.  We also won’t see our patients as frequently.”  She went on to tell me that the founder of chiropractic was actually a student of the founder of osteopathy for a short 6 weeks.  However divergent their paths are now, both disciplines are a reaction to “traditional” treatments of the time in which they were invented, at the end of the 1800s.

In the end, because of my travel schedule last month, I double-dipped.  The osteopath I saw in Paris made some helpful adjustments just 2 days before a trip I made stateside, and while I was in America I had 4 adjustments over a 2 week period with a chiropractor, including some time on a traction table.  On all these visits on both sides of the Atlantic I paid cash (70€ for my French visit, and $50USD for each of my American visits), as I have no US insurance, and as I said, French insurance does not cover osteopathy.  But, some mutuelle plans do.  Would I finally be motivated to get one of those “top up” plans that the French are so attached to?  Not yet.  But seeing both the osteo and chiro helped tremendously, and my back feels a lot better now.  I also managed to learn more about a field I didn’t know about and what the French system will pay for.  So, the pain was worth it, if only to remind me to be grateful that I live in a country in which I can easily see a doctor when I have a problem, and not pay an exorbitant amount.

Long lost luggage

“But why didn’t they load it on the flight?”

I was at Orly Airport, at the luggage desk for Vueling Airlines, or more properly speaking, at a desk that serviced 6 different airlines, one of which was Vueling, which if you don’t know, is one of the European ultra-low-cost carriers.  I was beginning to understand a number of facts about lost luggage, particularly when that luggage is lost by a budget airline, though I had no idea how much longer it would be before I would see my trusty Samsonite.

The flight left early…

This all started after a few days away in Copenhagen, which I deeply regret not visiting sooner.  The city, and the country in general, is the embodiment of hygge, which is a concept of enjoyment wrapped within characteristic Danish “unhurriedness” that all of us could use more of in our life.  But on the way to the airport, I missed the train that would have gotten me there 2 hours early, and while the trains to the airport normally run every 20 minutes, the next one was delayed for a lengthy interval, so I took the one after that, which was 40 minutes after the train I originally wanted.  When I arrived I also had to make my way to a different terminal, so as it was I was barely able to make the cutoff for luggage checkin.  Unfortunately, the flight crew was anxious to pull back and we left 8 minutes before our scheduled departure, which would normally be great, except this is probably the primary reason that my bag did not make it onto the flight.

I have traveled a fair bit in my life, but I haven’t often experienced that unique dread that hits whenever you realize all the bags have been unloaded and your bag wasn’t among them.  What made this more worrisome was that fewer than 72 hours from that moment, I was due to leave for America for a 3 week stay.  While I waited in line I googled “Vueling lost luggage” and read through a bunch of horror stories, mostly around luggage getting lost around their hub in Barcelona.  I was given a claim number and a website to log into to check the status.

What’s interesting is that while this website is ostensibly supposed to give you the most up-to-date information, you could always get the most current information by calling Vueling.  But that wasn’t free…

Outsourcing

The reason previous lost luggage situations felt so different for me is because they were almost always with a legacy carrier, like Air France or American Airlines, which have their own departments and teams that handle luggage and have at least a vague idea of where a bag is at any given moment.  Budget carriers don’t have such teams.  They outsource this function to private companies that handle luggage for many such airlines.  Needless to say, the phone numbers I was given were busy day and night.  But, I could call Vueling’s customer service number, for 15 cents per minute, to find out what was going on.  Sometimes the wait was a few minutes, sometimes 30 minutes, but this was the only way for me to get any kind of information, as the website was always updated 24-48 hours after events occurred.

I called everyone I could – Vueling in Spain, as well as Menzies, the company that loaded the luggage in Denmark, as well as the Copenhagen and Orly airports, trying to get more information.  Every time I made it through to someone who had access to my record they added notes to my case number, which I hoped at some point would allow me to underline the urgency of getting me this luggage before my trip to the States.

I eventually discovered that the luggage was not “lost,” merely delayed, and was there in Denmark; however Vueling only had one inbound flight to Paris per day, and though I landed on Saturday evening and immediately filed a claim, the luggage was not loaded onto the Sunday or even the Monday flight.  I was told that luggage sometimes didn’t make it on because of weight restrictions.  Practically speaking, that meant that luggage that is already delayed has less priority than luggage accompanying actual fliers.  The airline would rather continue to upset someone who has already lost luggage than create a cascade of complaints by loading my luggage and bumping someone else’s, etc.

There is no phone number

Showing my age, I constantly asked for a “telephone number” to the luggage “departments” of these airports, imagining a phone ringing somewhere in a vast warehouse space.  But there was no number.  The luggage tracing system called “World Tracer” has an internal messaging capability only.  You can continue to update a file that baggage handlers can read, but there’s no way for you to know that they’ve read it, and there’s not an immediately available way for you to use another means to reach them.

This dance become more complicated the minute I left Europe because Vueling isn’t in the US, which meant they would need to hand the luggage to another carrier.  The luggage did actually make it to Paris, about 6 hours after I left the continent.  I was headed to an event in Southern Utah, which meant that if they got the luggage to Las Vegas, which was the airport I flew into and was flying out of, within 6 days, all would be well.  But you can guess by now what happened.

As was the case before, when my luggage sat in Copenhagen for 3 days before being loaded onto a flight, this time it was 2 days before the bag made it to Newark, New Jersey.  Vueling told me that it was scheduled to come to Las Vegas, but they couldn’t tell me who would bring it, so I had to do my own detective research and called the airport in Las Vegas and asked for the numbers of the three big US legacy carriers: American, United, and Delta.  I guessed that the carrier would be United, as they hub out of there and were the most likely to have a direct flight to Las Vegas.  After calling a few times and getting busy signals, I finally got through to someone and they read through all the notes.

It says here that the bag was supposed to be turned over to us by British Airways yesterday and should have landed here last night.  But we haven’t taken the bag from BA yet.”

So you don’t have possession of the bag?

No sir, I’m sorry we don’t.”

Going to an internal place of zen, I thanked him and went about trying to find a telephone number for the British Airways luggage office in Newark.  The number is not publicly available, but lest all this learning go to waste, it is +1-973-849-0562.  I only found this out because the day before I was to take my flight out of Las Vegas to my next destination, they called me with a visible caller ID, ostensibly using the number I had on file in my claim.

Mr. Heiner, it says here in our notes that you’re leaving for Kansas City tomorrow, is that true?

Yes,” I smiled.  “What were you thinking?”  I assumed they would be sending it via another airline.

Can you give us an address that will accept a Fedex delivery?  I think that makes the most sense at this point.”

I audibly breathed a sigh of relief and gave her just such an address in the KC area, and hung up the phone, almost in disbelief.  She called back a few minutes later with a tracking number.

Patience and perspective

Several times during this process I realized that not only was there nothing I could do, but nothing the staff could do either.  Lost luggage inhabits a strange universe in which hope is actually a strategy, and only the most tenacious people get answers, or know at any given time where their luggage actually is.

When the luggage arrived in Kansas City on Tuesday, a full 8 days and thousands of miles from when I saw it last, I smiled in quiet relief.  I had spent intervening days reading up on Quora and other sites that explained how luggage got delayed, how unlikely it was that the bag would be permanently lost, etc.  That said, most bags are delivered within 5 days of being “lost” and I was at nearly double that number, though a continental change probably contributed to that.

Further, I realized that had I simply been at home in Paris, I would have gotten that bag just 3 days after it had been left in Denmark.  It wasn’t the airline’s fault that I had chosen such a short interval between travel, nor that I had arrived a little late that day and that the flight had left a little early.  Sometimes it’s just a combination of factors that makes the bag(s) miss a flight, and then continue to elude you over days.

I was grateful not to have permanently lost a trusty suitcase that had served me well over a decade, as well as some important and expensive items inside it.  I remain grateful for all the people who helped get the luggage back to me, despite what my “why isn’t it here now?” desires might have been.  I am most grateful to even have the first world problem of delayed luggage, as it implies being able to travel somewhere because of my own desires and on my own means.

I’ll be even more patient and understanding the next time this happens.  That will serve you well if and when this happens to you too.

After a month of French

There have been plenty of adventures since I moved back to Paris after living in Morzine for the month of February, but before I tell you about those, I should put a bookend on my time there and tell you why I think you could benefit greatly from doing a similar full-time immersion program – be in the mountains or at the seashore.

What I expected

I was expecting to learn a lot of French and to personally immerse myself outside of classroom hours with French apps, podcasts, and videos.

I was also expecting to improve, in some way, in my skiing.

In the back of my mind I also thought it would be a nice “reset” or getaway at the beginning of 2018 to orient the rest of my year.  The French Alps for a month?  “Why not,” as the French say. 🙂

That was all.

What actually happened

My confidence and progress in French grew leaps and bounds.  While I entered into the program on the edge of A2/B1, by the end of the month, with 80 classroom hours under my belt, I was much closer to really starting into B2 work.  For those of you unfamiliar with the DELF system, progress starts at A1, then A2, then B1, and so on and C2 is the final level.  For context, C2 means you could be hired by pretty much any French company, though many of my friends have been hired at as low as B1 competence (since many younger French enjoy speaking English at work, and at many tech companies, English is ironically the linguafranca in this country).

It turns out when you spend 4 hours in a classroom per day (2 hours in the morning, and 2 hours in the late afternoon, with weekends off), your progress is cumulative and exponential.  My halting descriptions in my first week were night and day from my confident (albeit short) explanations of the 4th week, when all fear about speaking French for extended periods of times with complete strangers had vaporized.

My skiing also improved.  I was a level 5 skier coming into my time in Morzine and confidently left a level 6.  I left to ski right after the morning class each day and would come back a bit before the afternoon class and change and have a quick snack, and get the homework from the previous day done…most of the time.

As for the podcasts and videos?  Well that lasted about a week, if that.  I was getting plenty of material in class as well as homework and there is such a thing as burnout.  You have to make sure that you’re giving yourself enough time to absorb and retain material, as well as reflect on it.

The reset?  That definitely happened.  You can’t be surrounded with views like this, this, that, and that, without relaxing and reflecting on your life and how fortunate you are to be in such a situation.

What I didn’t expect (and loved)

I didn’t expect to have to really explain myself and be open in class.  One of the key things to master in the B levels is the correct time to use the imparfait vs passe compose tenses.  I won’t get into all of the differences right now, but one very basic difference is that the imparfait describes past habitual actions, whereas the passe compose describes an action that occurred at a specific time (think, “I used to walk to school when I was younger” vs “one day in school a tornado appeared in the school yard”).

But using these tenses in supervised conversation with my classmates (we would pair off and our teacher would stroll around, eavesdropping and spot-correcting either our pronunciation or formation of the tense, but in a kind manner, not an annoying one. 🙂 ) meant I had to describe things like, “my earliest memory” or “my favorite vacation” or “my closest friends.”  It was a double vulnerability – firstly, sharing intimate details of my life with near-strangers (who would eventually become friends), but secondly, being okay with mispronouncing and misforming my French.  This was the “safe, supervised” environment that I knew would help develop my French quickly.

I really didn’t expect the social aspect of the course.  I lived in a giant apartment with about 7 others.  There was an Irish couple whose oldest child was my age in their own room, an 18-year old English girl on her gap year in her own room, a 21-year old English guy on his study abroad year (he’s studying German in Stuttgart) in his own room, and 3 other guys in my room, which had bunk beds: an Australian and two Swiss (from the German part of Switzerland).  We would occasionally gain and lose people as the weeks wore on, as some people were only there for a week.  One night after dinner, I marveled at the fact that we had spent all day working on French, had dinner together in English, and then some of us chatted in our own native tongues – the Irish couple chatted in Gaelic (which they’ve spent a far amount of time studying), the Swiss happily chatted in Swiss-German, which is a happier, bouncier version of the Schmetterling-variety High German that you think of when you hear the word Deutschland, and the Brits and the Aussie and myself would deconstruct idioms that we all used that were usually never used in each others’ cultures (e.g. the British use the word trousers whereas Americans use pants.  The Brits laugh at that as pants mean underwear to them.  The Aussies just shorten everything, so that’s always fun to talk about).

As the “uncle” of the group – I was a couple decades older than most of my roommates – I organized “family dinners” on Saturday nights in which we would sample the Haute Savoie cuisine of our region: raclettes, fondue, tartiflettes, etc.  It was a great time to unwind and just get to know each other even better.  It also gave us some buffer – I, for example, had told all my friends that I had no intention of speaking with them in February so that I could give all my energy and attention to this.  But, I hadn’t calculated that I would still need human interaction (surprise!), and my fellow classmates were a great help in this way.

I started with a new French tutor here in Paris the week after I got back.  I wasn’t about to lose all the progress I had made.  It was wonderful to sit down with him and work through tenses and grammatical constructions still fresh in my mind.  The reaction from some in Morzine (and, I imagine from some of my newer readers who have not been on this journey with me from the beginning) was: “Five years in Paris?  But surely your French is fine!”  I’ve written about this here and here but I often explained that it’s not a problem to learn a basic “subsistence” level of French to get through daily life, the prefecture, and short conversations with friends.  It’s the longer conversations with friends and the lectures at museums that were more of a challenge, and that was what I was here to improve.  But to be fair, you can’t live here for 5 years and not pick up on the proper pronunciation, and I was complimented on my pronunciation by several of my teachers.  I smile to think about how scared and hesitant I was in my very first year in France.  It’s that fear that keeps so many people from progressing.

I overcame a lot of that fear, and I got so much more out of the experience than I expected.  I want to pay special compliments to my teachers Emilie, Justine, Celine, as well as Christelle and all the AFS team that worked hard on every aspect of our time in Morzine.  It was amazing and unforgettable.

Photo is courtesy of Alpine French School and was taken the night of our “going-away” party.  I’m in the middle with our school dog Mani.  Several of us who had been there for some weeks were leaving the next day and they feted us before our departure.  To learn more about the school and how I learned about it (and about a discount for TAIP readers), click here.