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August in France

It is quiet.  Wonderfully quiet.  Not just in Paris but everywhere you go in France.  On July 15th, after some national holiday that will go unnamed, the French decide that it’s been a solid 10.5 months of work, and that it’s close enough to 12 to round up and call it a year.  They depart in all directions, with a plan to return on or around September 1st.

Effectively this means you’re on your own if you choose to stay in your particular part of France.  90% of the local restaurants and shops close, and here in Paris, it’s the tourists who now outnumber the locals.  Everything feels slower because everything is slower.  Normally I would say this is in part due to the weather, but given the fluctuations of the last six months, I’m uncertain as to whether there is a correlation any longer between the season of the year and the expected climate.

My second card

The last card said “Visitor” and specifically prohibited working.  This one recognized my new status and interestingly was dated from the date of my follow-up visit to the Prefecture in April, not the date I received my first recipisse, in January.  This permanently shifts my renewal date to April, which is nice as I can now avoid the end of the year congestion that I have grown used to.  You’ll also see a new permanent entrance to the Prefecture at Cite:


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It ostensibly provides more safety via a double-doored security controlled entrance.  It’s just to the right, about 50 meters from the entrance you are used to.

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No, I’m not mad, bro.

Interestingly, the lady who issued me my carte took about five minutes (which felt longer due too the dread) rechecking all the paperwork from the previous two visits.  I remained stoic and impassive, and I kept telling myself, “Don’t sweat it, you’ve got everything in order.”  Sure enough, she stamped and signed all that was needed and that was “case closed.”

Please don’t make too much of my facial expression.  You’re specifically prohibited from smiling in official French photos.🙂

Grand Train

Last weekend I took one of my meetup groups to Grand Train.  It’s part of an 8-year redevelopment project and rather than just have a boring old construction site, some smarties got together and created essentially a pop-up party that reminded me of the gently convivial atmospheres of the ruin pubs of Budapest.

Entrance is free and in addition to numerous train exhibits there are pop-up food shacks and indoor and outdoor seating galore.  It runs through October and you would do well to get in early (around 15h-17h) and leave early (before 22h) as it starts to get very crowded at that point.

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Outdoor Film Festival is back on…but not outdoors

La Villette, on the edges of the 19th, usually plays host to an outdoor film festival all summer long.  However, following the attacks in Nice, the Mairie de Paris laid down specific security expectations for outdoor events and the film festival couldn’t comply and it was tentatively suspended “until further notice.”  After a couple weeks of hand-wringing it was decided not to waste all the planning that had gone into selecting the films and organizing showing dates and the festival has been moved indoors to the Grand Halle.  If you want to join our Film and Supper Club we are going to watch Akira Kurosawa’s Ran next week.

Happy to be here

Despite this being my third year in France, this is my first full August in Paris, as the last two summers I was working in Switzerland.  Alas, they passed a law that went into effect earlier this year that restricted the number of non-EU persons that could work on temporary summer contracts, and my wings were clipped.  I was certainly down the first week I got the news, back in March, but the summer has proved what I suspected to be true back then: more opportunities would arise while I was in Paris, not in Switzerland, during July and August, and I would have more of a chance to explore parts of France that I have not before.  There are still two weeks to go before the Rentreé and I’m very glad to have these quiet summer days pretty much to myself (or to accompany friends who have never had Five Guys to taste their first one).

EH 5738P  Ernest Hemingway, Paris, circa 1924. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston.

Book Club: A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway

After the November attacks of last year many French begin reading this book as an act of defiance.  It was left among some of the tributes at Republique and other places.  More than one French friend told me that it was a chance to look at Paris through a foreigner’s eyes, and its sudden resurgence made it okay to read something that is often seen as too “cliché” for the French to read.

For those of us who write in Paris, it’s impossible to avoid Hemingway’s shadow.  Whether we are browsing the stacks at Shakespeare and Company, or walking near the Place Contrescarpe, or even when writing in a cafe, we might imagine Hemingway himself toiling away in a corner over a notebook near empty glasses of rum.  He’s writing, and he glances up to see a girl sitting by herself waiting for someone.  She has a face “fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair black as a crow’s wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek.”  If the description of her strikes you, you can imagine the effect she had on Hemingway as he tried to refocus and concentrate on the story at hand.

“I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought.  You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.”

And what was that writing process like?  “So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there” and “Write the best story that you can and write it as straight as you can.”

While Hemingway describes some measure of poverty during his time here, it’s nowhere near the harrowing account that George Orwell gives in Down and Out in Paris and London, a book I will cover in a future installment of this series.  Yet, almost 100 years later, I think this is still very true: “In Paris, then, you could live very well on almost nothing and by skipping meals occasionally and never buying any new clothes, you could save and have luxuries.

More than anything, this book is a snapshot of life of life in Paris, amidst writers and artists, between 1921 and 1926.  We see all the usual suspects – Sylvia Beach, Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald (and Zelda), as well as so many landmarks that are still around like Le Deux Magots and Brasserie Lipp.  And of course, there is his wife, whom he manages to lose in the course of the writing, due to his own self-admitted infidelity.  She’s not an integral enough part of the work for you to really feel the loss, but she does provide bookends to the story and to his time there.

Read it because you’re an American or because you’re not but want to get the quintessential “American in Paris” viewpoint.  Or because you want to see just how little the city has changed in a century.

The featured image is of Hemingway in his Left Bank apartment in 1924. 

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OFII checkboxes: two classes done

In my last post chronicling a visit to OFII since getting on the path to citizenship, I attended the two classes which were mandated as part of my immigration classes: “Living and working in France” and “Civic Formation.”

Both of these classes were unexciting 8-hour affairs, punctuated by lunch.  The lunch was provided for us and the training itself was completed by an agency known as SJT which was responsible for certifying that we were the persons we claimed to be, that we knew our stuff, and that we weren’t sleeping in class.

In both classes an English translator was provided to give delayed translation to the English speakers in the room.  In both classes the English speakers comprised more than 35% of the class, and no doubt it could easily have been a half-day if the classes were separated into the languages that were easiest for the students to understand, but that would have ironically undermined the fact that these classes were to welcome immigrants to FRANCE where they speak FRENCH.🙂

The classes themselves provided some interesting information and were deeper dives into themes discussed at our first briefing at OFII.  In the Civic Formation class we took a closer look at French history, from the time of the Romans and then Clovis all the way to present day and the French Republic.  We explored the themes of liberté, egalité, fratérnité, and laïcite.

The “living and working in France” class also included some 16 and 17 year olds as the law only recently changed to exempt those who had emigrated to France at an early age from these classes.  And, indeed, it felt like a high school class, in some ways.  In the “getting a job” section we were instructed in granular ways how to create a CV (that’s “curriculum vitae” and in Europe is often what they say when they mean “resumé.”  It’s not to be confused with the academic CV that’s often submitted when you apply to graduate programs in America.) as well as how to dress and act in an interview.  I was once again astonished at the amount of social help available to the French in terms of nursery schools, job finding, housing, and subsidies.

Social housing was a subject of a prolonged digression in our class, as one woman, an Ivorian, shared (thankfully, in quite deliberate and paced French) her travails in social housing with her three children in a 20 square meter apartment.  The French State does guarantee very low rent for those who get social housing, but it can’t guarantee spacious accommodations.  Our instructor told us that the wait inside the Peripherique (the 20 arrondissements) was roughly 8-10 years, and that you had to renew your place in line each year or you had to start over.  If you were wiling to live in the suburbs you could get a place within 18 months or even sooner.

At the end of each class we were given a multiple choice quiz which was graded on completion, not accuracy, and we went over the answers as a class and noted whether we had known this information prior to taking the class.

So, all is now clear for me to pick up my actual carte de sejour, over 6 months since I obtained legal rights to work and live in France beyond my previous visitor status.  Apart from keeping up on my regular payments to the various social and governmental agencies I needed to as a French business owner, I wouldn’t need to start thinking about my next visit to the Prefecture for at least another…3 months.🙂

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Losing at Home

My heart sank.  In the fan zone at the Eiffel Tower, tucked away behind one of the smaller screens I was standing in front of, the small group of Portuguese near us lost their minds in celebration.  I hadn’t ever been here before – in France, watching the National Team play in a Final – but I’d watched plenty of football, and given how the game had gone, I knew this was probably it.

* * *

The police were dressed in riot gear and were prepared for all manner of shenanigans.  What they got instead was a quietly compliant group of Parisians, eager to get home to perhaps more easily hide their disappointment.  As I got off at Opéra to change to Line 3, I observed a girl in her mid-20s quietly crying, the tears muddling the tricolor she had proudly painted on her cheeks that afternoon.

* * *

I do love football, especially the spectacle of an international tournament, but travel kept me out of France during most of the group stage play, though it did allow me to watch with thousands of Viennese as their national team played Portugal, or with the Swiss who live in Liechtenstein as they played Romania.  I watched the two semifinals on my street here in the 2nd arrondissement and while I was the only one in the entire bar watching Wales and Portugal, I had to make reservations and arrive an hour before the match to hold on to those seats before the France-Germany game, which was a treat to watch.  Further down the street is an axis where three sports bars are nearby and many people danced in the street to celebrate the heroic efforts of the French team that night.  The whole city was buoyed by it.

This morning its another Monday in what has been a tough 12 months for the French, and yet I sense resolve so often attributed to the British and known in their “keep calm and carry on” mantra.  Disappointment is part of football, but it’s part of life too – and those of us who know football know that Portugal was defeated at home in the Finals of Euro 2004 by the Greeks.  They know what happened last night because they were on the losing end of such a situation once.  And they came back to fight another day and won their first European Championship.

* * *

More than anything in these days of political pygmies, as we see Australia divided by a General Election, a narrow Brexit, and an America eager to shoot itself to death, we can enjoy a simple thing like a football tournament, that brings together people from 24 different countries, to cheer, laugh, learn, and cry.  Among much disappointment, in football and otherwise, there are always opportunities to learn and grow.  It remains for us to take them.

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London Calling

I often tell people I never expected to like London as much as I do.  Don’t get me wrong – I would never, ever live there – it’s too expensive, rushed, big, and dense.  But for a few days at a time, quietly sipped, it’s a wonderful retreat for a native English speaker.

For one, most of the museums are free.  Over eight or so visits I’ve gotten to see the great treasures of the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert, the Tate Britain and the Tate Modern, the Natural History Museum, as well as had the chance to venture out to Greenwich to see the marvelous nautical museums out there.

Then there’s the food.  Just saying the word “spicy” is enough to make French people reach for their throats, pre-emptively coughing.  It’s not their fault.  There’s not any native spicy food in France.  Same for the cuisines in Germany and Switzerland.  But the British palette, early on stretched by colonial ambitions, can tolerate quite a bit of spice, and so you see many more Indian and Malay restaurants here, done using authentic spice profiles.  You can find those cuisines, and dozens more, for bargain prices.  There’s also the theatre.  As a native speaker of the language I appreciate all the nuance, humo(u)r, and wordplay without the need of a translator or intermediary.

In a way, London is where I go to remind myself what it feels like to freely breathe in my native language, whereas in France, my French reading comprehension has far outpaced my speaking speed, so while I scan through Le Figaro or Le Monde at my regular English reading speed and truly understand what is written, my speed in discussing issues spoken about between those pages, or any issues in general, is slower.  I’m always a bit more cautious and held back with witticisms, jokes, or the casual jump-in of a serious conversation in my new language.

As for getting to London, having flown in and out of Luton, Gatwick, and Heathrow from Paris, I’m a very big advocate of taking the Eurostar.  If you book 6-8 weeks in advance, you can routinely pay around 50€ each way, which is not only competitive with the lowest rates you can pay to fly, but it’s one of those rare instances in which taking a train is actually faster than taking a plane.  The Eurostar is 2 hours and 20 minutes, Gare du Nord to Saint Pancras, and is city-center to city-center, connected by the Metro and Tube, respectively.  Even the fastest trip from Gare du Nord out to CDG is going to take you at least 30 minutes (slightly longer to get out to Orly), then you need to get through security, and then you need to be there at least one hour before your flight.  By the time you have done all that, you could have already been in London, and you haven’t even left Paris yet.  So, if you want to take a few days’ trip to London, you can get there and back pretty quickly, and pretty affordably.

The question might be accommodation.  And that’s a fair point.  Over the years I’ve developed a really wonderful group of friends in London and if they are in town I can often crash at their places.  But if everyone is out of town, I can find a hostel (25-35€/night) or an airbnb/hotel (55-75€/night).  Just be prepared: in London they aren’t shy about renting out spaces that would be glorified closets in America.  You can get more space, of course, if you’re willing to pay for it.

You don’t need to regularly visit, as I do.  Just go once and see how you feel.  I definitely underestimated it when I first visited as a tourist, back in 2009.  Summer, with Wimbledon and sunshine everywhere, is a great time to give it your first try.

I took the picture from Westminster Bridge on the day after the Brexit Referendum, just some minutes after I had left College Green by Parliament, where I had been doing some short informal interviews with some MPs and MEPs on their reactions to the referendum result.  The article I wrote on it is here.

 

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Troubleshooting: Bank Accounts

Some time ago I was sitting with some friends and the conversation turned to banks and bank fees.  Both of my friends shared how much they hated “establishment” banks and described with relish how they had recently “fired” them.  They had chosen to move on to the “internet only” banks.  One banked at Fortuneo, the other recommended Boursorama.  I was happy with Societe Generale and had long ago written off bank fees in France as “part of the deal.”  Turns out, as an American citizen, I don’t really have a choice.

I went through the process of applying for a basic checking account at both Fortuneo and Boursorama, banks that leveraged technology and virtual offices to offer low-to-no fee banking.  At the end of both applications I was rejected, in no uncertain terms.  Not because of my credit score (because there’s no such thing in Europe), but because unlike my friends, who possessed German and Czech citizenship, respectively, I was considered a “US person” for legal purposes, and was subject to FATCA.

FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act) became law in 2010 in the US but came into force officially in France this year.  It places an enormous regulatory reporting burden on French banks servicing US citizens.  The “budget banks” mentioned above do not have the means or the staff to comply with this reporting requirement so they rejected me.  I was told by one person in the know that it costs French banks up to 10,000€/year to service someone like me (a “US person”).  This is all because the US government is determined to get its grubby hands on every last shred of our income, even if it was not earned in the USA.

Now, even if that number of 10,000€/year is wildly exaggerated, something like 2,500€/year is still a lot just to comply with US reporting requirements.  When you keep that in mind, you can smile your way through the two hour process of opening a new checking account, as I had to do a few months ago for my new French business.  It’s not enough to sign a few forms and give the bank your money, as we often do in America.  The French want to know what kind of business you are operating, how much money you think you will make, the name of your most recently deceased pet, etc.

Part of this is simply a “get to know you” policy that French banks are encouraging these days.  But part of it is both French governmental compliance and now US regulatory compliance.  My poor counselor told me that I was his first “US” account and he called in backup from his colleagues no fewer than three times as unexpected screens kept popping up during my registration.

All in all, I was happy with the process and BNP Paribas offers the same level of service and convenience that I’ve become accustomed to with French banks but is (to my knowledge) not widespread in the US.

  1. RIB (releve d’identite bancaire) This is an upgrade over traditional “online billpay” as there is never a paper check issued.  The money leaves your account and 48 business hours later it is in another account, whether it’s the account of a friend or that of a regular payee of your household.  When you add a new payee you must key in a pin and everytime you issue a RIB payment to someone you must key in a pin.
  2. App-based verification for online purchases.  When you make a credit card purchase on the web you will receive a push notification on your phone.  You must key in a pin in order to approve the purchase.  Then, and only then, is your purchase approved.
  3. No ATM fees.  By French law, you cannot be charged fees for withdrawing your own money, even if it’s from the ATM of another bank.  So you can use any ATM anywhere, anytime.

It’s a lot of trouble to set up a French bank account as an American these days, but once you have that account, it’s a great thing, and it makes your life here that much easier.