In the Mountains…to learn French

I write this on my second day of classes at Alpine French School, a school I first became aware of because of TAIM blog reader, Matt Kern.  I was telling Matt over coffee that I wasn’t particularly happy with the classes I had taken while in Paris, and that perhaps getting away for a few weeks would help me get to a higher level of ability in the language, as I knew “fluency” was some years away.  In Paris I was in the thick of my life – with friends, social activities, and the city itself.  Somewhere else…perhaps I would be able to put in 4-5 hours a day of study and make a serious move forward from where I was (B1).

Matt told me of this particular school in Morzine, nestled in the French Alps but just a stone’s throw from the Swiss border, where I could be isolated, learn French, and if I wanted to, ski in between classes.  My reaction was the same as those of most when I tell them about it: “Really?”  Yet, it was perfect in a number of ways.

I would be isolated.  It’s at least an hour’s winding drive through the Alps to get to Geneva from Morzine, and I wouldn’t have a rental car and would have to pay for a shuttle to get into town, if I even wanted to go (I’m much more a Zurich then Geneva person in Switzerland).  No temptations for weekend getaways.  I’d also be in a small town, away from my Paris life, so my options would be limited.  Studying and skiing could be everything!

So, around last October, I began planning.  I set aside 4 weeks, bought the 4-hour-per-day learning French package (Super Intensive), bought a season ski pass (it’s around 30-40% off when you buy prior to the end of October), and trains to and from Geneva.  The school assisted me with finding accommodations and with getting to and from Geneva.

It being day 2, both mental and actual muscles are a bit sore.  Four hours in class yesterday – from 09h00-11h00, then 16h00-18h00, with a break in between, which I and my roommates used for skiing, of course.  I also took an additional hour and a half in the evening for studying, and have been listening to Pimsleur lessons to and from school (about a 15 minute walk each way).

I’ll be updating you on progress throughout the month, and I also hope to shoot some videos for the Alpine French School facebook page, which you can follow here.  If you ever decide to come (it has been three years since Matt and I had that conversation about this place, so understandably it may be a while) the school will waive enrollment fees for anyone who mentions “The American in Paris blog” as how they heard about the school.  Remember, the school is open year-round, so if skiing’s not your thing, perhaps hiking in the summer?  The town is lovely and Montblanc is visible on good weather days from the top of the highest ski runs.  More to come…

I took the photo on my first day here.  Conditions were great.

Goodbye to the 2nd

So, here’s the thing.  I never actually planned to live in the 2nd.  After a year on the 8th floor in the 17th, it had come time for me to graduate to a “real” Parisian apartment instead of just living in former servant’s quarters.  My search led me to a ground floor apartment in the 15th, near the Sevres-Lecourbe Metro on line 6.  I was not such an established Right-Banker at the time, with routines and rhythms that I preferred, and I really loved the apartment and the neighborhood.  Alas, during the application process I was competing against an American college student who also wanted the apartment, who first raised her offer (the apartment was going for 1200€/mo and she offered 1400€/mo) to try to beat me.  When I matched, she pulled out the nuclear option and had her father pay the entire year’s lease in advance.  I couldn’t come close to matching it, didn’t want it that badly, and let it go.

I tell people there are two rules in Parisian real estate rentals: 1) you don’t get the apartment you want, you get the apartment you get, and 2) it’s always better to jump before you’re pushed.  I’ll start with the second rule first.

Dig your well before you’re thirsty

It’s not an exaggeration that getting an apartment in Paris is tough.  As I’ve shared here before, there are many applicants for the most desirable locations, and there may be nothing wrong with your dossier – someone else’s may just be slightly better.  Hence, if you know you’re going to move, don’t wait until your lease is up.  Get active – start looking, and bargain with both your current and new landlord as needed.  When I got my place in the 2nd, there was a lag of about 6 weeks in between when my lease was up in the 17th and the new apartment was available.  I had been on good terms with my previous landlady (pay your rent on time and this becomes simple) and so we easily negotiated a 6-week extension to get me to my move-in date at the new place, and my new landlady was kind enough to give me the keys a week before my move-in as she was going to be out of town.  I had liked this apartment in the dead center of Paris (Metro Reaumur-Sebastopol, on Lines 3 and 4) after being used to a 10-15 metro ride to get to Chatelet, but I was rather hoping the American girl would find out the apartment in the 15th wasn’t for her, nor was Paris, and I’d be there to comfort that landlord by moving in right away.  I negotiated a one year lease with a 60-day notice to end it with no penalty, and I moved in to the apartment in the 2nd, seeing it as a temporary hardship.

I have to say, I didn’t realize how wrong I was right away.  Those first 3 months were spent rearranging everything.  I now had a kitchen that was almost the size of my entire previous apartment.  I no longer had to take the Metro into central Paris, as I was in central Paris.  I could have friends over for dinner parties or board game nights (and did!).  It was one night months later, the apartment in the 15th long forgotten, as I was pushing open the enormous old door to the set of buildings that comprised my apartments, that I realized, “Wow, I love this neighborhood.”  My address was on Rue Saint-Denis, an ancient pilgrimage route but now home to many of the trendiest restaurants in the center of Paris as well as adjacent to a whole host of cocktail bars that were part of the nascent mixology culture in the city.  I had gone from 8 square meters to 39 square meters, from the quiet and wealthy outskirts of the 17th to the bohemian beating heart of the 2nd.  I was never going to leave…or so I thought.

About a year ago my landlady told me of some changes in her personal life that would necessitate a sale in the medium term – the next 2-3 years – and she was floating it to me because, by law, I had first right of refusal as the current tenant if she planned to sell, but also because we had developed an exceptional relationship tried by all the challenges you could have (like leaks) in a landlord/tenant relationship.  We split standard wear/tear items 50/50 (like a broken faucet) and she 100% covered irregular items (like the stove, washing machine, dishwasher, and hot water heater all breaking during my 3 years).  I would maybe have to meet the delivery man (or occasionally, help him carry these backbreakingly-heavy appliances up 5 flights of stairs) but she was prompt and courteous – which from horror stories told by my fellow denizens – is not the norm in this town (or perhaps, anywhere).

I weighed the decision to buy, but it was mostly academic, because of the cost, and started to cast around for an alternative.  I found it in September of last year and signed a lease.  A friend of mine only needed an apartment for a few months before leaving for an internship in New York, and so she moved in right away and helped to defray the cost before I moved in last weekend, in the waning days of my lease, and she moved into my old apartment, with a prearrangement with my (now former) landlady for special 60-day extension of my old lease, to cover my friend until the day she was leaving Paris.

You can have what’s available

When I say you “don’t get the apartment you want,” I don’t mean that you can only get into undesirable places, but rather that the idea of picking a neighborhood and style of apartment you want is an act of hope, and is not a strategy.  Paris is a very particular market because it features almost-fixed inventory against enormous demand.  There are very few new buildings going up inside the Peripherique, and hence rents have to escalate in order to deal with demand.  So when I say you “get the apartment you get,” I also refer to happy accidents like my place in the 2nd.  It was perfectly adequate as an apartment, but the secret I didn’t know (because I was still too new in town) was what an amazing neighborhood it was.  That is true for many parts of Paris, not just the part that was formerly “mine.”

As the weeks approached for my move it began to weigh on me…I was “missing it already” and telling my friends any chance I could get.  I was probably pre-grieving.  The funny thing is I wasn’t moving out of Paris – but I knew that when I moved I would settle into the same routine I did in the 2nd.  When I first moved to the 2nd, I made trips out to my familiar haunts in the 17th, especially one of the first cafes I fell in love with (Le Poncelet: good, simple, no-fuss food, staff that smiled and knew your name, and never got mad when I sat and wrote for hours).  But over time, that kind of behavior dies as you develop new routines, and begin to love the three blocks around your apartment.  Most of Paris is really just a collection of neighborhoods within neighborhoods in that way.  This was my place for the last 3 years of my journey, and I will miss it.

But the new beginning, and the new neighborhood, is already winning me over.  More about that, soon.

Photo by Yannis Papanastasopoulos on Unsplash

The bike explosion happening during the Velib transition

While it’s true that you often don’t know how good something is until it’s gone, you also don’t realize how much better things can be until you get to try alternatives, and during the last 60 days, as Velib stations have been slowly but surely been deactivated and then ripped up for refurbishment, the dockless solutions of Gobee, Ofo, and Obike have cropped up seemingly everywhere.

Before we talk about the new kids on the boulevard, it’s probably best to understand how we got here in the first place, and that is because of the dreadful performance of JCDecaux, who had the Velib contract from the beginning.  It was their complacency that brought us to this exciting (though painful) new start.  For those who don’t know, Velib is Paris’ docked bike-sharing system and was originally pitched not only as a system that wouldn’t cost Parisians a penny, but would make the city money.  I know, don’t laugh too hard at socialists promising to turn a profit on a capital-intense venture.

But the reality wasn’t just that Velib failed to be revenue neutral.  It seems that for at least the last 5 years, Velib’s 24,000 bikes have cost the city of Paris about 15 million euros per year.  Those costs can be broken down into vandalism repair (10%), deployment to far-flung suburbs (75%), and maintenance (15%).  As most French firms sitting on a fat contract do, JCDecaux failed to proactively fix the system and predictably they were replaced at the first opportunity by a Montpellier-based company called Smoove which will offer a lighter bike, with over 1/3 of the inventory of the bikes in Paris being electric, which will surely help with the uphill/downhill problem in places like Montmartre and La Villette (people are happy to ride the bikes downhill, but uphill, not so much).  Unsurprisingly, JCDecaux reacted in a predictable French way when they lost the contract: crying, appeals, and attempted striking.

While this has been going on in the foreground, regular Velib users like myself, reluctant to change from a system we knew well (though didn’t especially love), started to see some of the dockless bikes show up in the city.  Velib is docked – meaning the bikes are parked at specific stations, whereas the dockless ones can be parked, well, anywhere.  Now, while the apps all give you ways to find appropriate places to “park” the bikes not everyone pays attention and at the moment at any given moment you could find a rainbow of bikes around you (Gobee is bright green, Ofo is bright yellow, and Obike is a subdued yellow).  I didn’t switch to trying dockless bikes until it became impossible to reliably use Velib.  The native Velib app and apps like Citymapper that scraped from the information provided by that app were not indicating which stations had been shut for maintenance, so sometimes you would have to hunt for a place to park your bike, with no reliable guide other than trial and error.

That’s what led me to first try Hong Kong-owned Gobee’s system first.  They had flooded the inner city of Paris with bikes and I needed a reliable bike system as I went about Paris on a daily basis and Velib in complete rebuild mode wasn’t going to cut it.  For flat riding in short distances, the bike is certainly adequate.  When you download the app you put in a 20€ deposit and then add money to your account.  With most rides costing around 50 cents, 5€ is plenty to get started with.  The downside?  They clearly didn’t adequately plan for this deployment.  A couple weeks ago I tried to unlock 9 different bikes in the span of 15 minutes and each time I was told that the bike was broken, though the status of the bikes had not been updated in the app, leading to a waste of time for the end user as he/she tries to unlock a bike that is showing in the system as available when it really isn’t.  Such unreliability has meant that I’ve tried to unlock bikes that are not only off the system but have a hanging tag that says “I’m broken” but still managed to unlock and work for me.  The QR scanner technology is also not great and almost always you will have to manually enter your bike number to unlock it.  Will Gobee figure it out?  We’ll see.

Taking a much more cautious approach was venture-backed Ofo out of China.  They had been in talks with the City of Paris to make sure that the deployment of the bikes was something that the city approved of and they sought a collaborative process.  Given the speed of the French government, this meant that they were slower to deploy their bikes (they’ve only got about 1000 out at the moment).  Because they are pretty rare I only rode my first one a few days ago, but I have to say these bikes are dreamy.  Unlike the single speed Gobee bikes, the Ofo bikes have three speeds and simply feel stronger and sturdier.  This does make them a little heavier than the Gobee bikes, but the Ofo bikes are superior to the old Velib bikes, with the new Velib bikes not due to make their appearance until early next year.  As far as their app goes, unlike Gobee, their QR scanner works flawlessly in well-lit conditions and I have yet to run into a situation in which I scan a bike and then the app apologizes, telling me that the bike is actually broken, not available.  They also don’t require a 20€ deposit (for now).

There’s also Singapore-based Obike, but I’ve really only seen those bikes in the Marais, so alas, I don’t have anything to report there.  I do know that their bikes and pricing are the same as Gobees: single-speed and 50 cents per 30 minutes, as opposed to Ofo’s multi-speed bikes costing 50 cents per 20 minutes.

What’s fascinating is that studies show that dockless solutions do not necessarily eat into the revenues of an existing docked solution, but create more user demand for bikes overall.  This makes sense as I very readily joined up to two dockless schemes despite being a Velib user since 2014.  Will I go back to docked once I’ve gone dockless?  The 29€ annual rate for Velib subscription is likely to rise, and given my current rate of use on the dockless schemes, Velib, even with a price increase, is likely to remain the most economical.  What has changed is that Parisians have been freed from the staid shackles of one “okay” choice in bike sharing and have multiple options of varying quality.  Instead of solely relying on Velib, active users like myself are likely to retain accounts with whatever solutions are out there and use them as time and occasion dictate.  Whatever 2018 holds for bike sharing in Paris, it’s going to be orders of magnitude better than what we’ve had until now.

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

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

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

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

Credit where it is due

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

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

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

Jour-J (D-Day equivalent)

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

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

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

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

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

French bureaucracy discovers electronic payment

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

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

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

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

The Airbnb Wars in Paris: for now, a truce

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

What’s changed

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

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

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

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

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

But, does this really change anything?

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

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

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

What can still happen?

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

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

Photo by Nil Castellví on Unsplash

Profession Liberale, Part 4: VAT (or TVA)

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

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

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

What is VAT?

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

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

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

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

Auditing Agency

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

The Citizenship Narrative

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

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

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

Photo by Sanwal Deen on Unsplash

A side hustle that becomes part of your business

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

Cobblers and Keys

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

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

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

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

Tailors and Packages

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

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

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

Photo by Dương Trần Quốc on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Murray Campbell on Unsplash

No-frills train travel: a new trend

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

iDTGV

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

Ouigo

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

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

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

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

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

IZY

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

* * *

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

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

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

Photo by Stefan Kunze on Unsplash

Just trying to help…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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