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.

Gas Pains

“Do you want an electric stove, a gas one, or a hybrid?”

My (new) landlady asked me this question over the telephone as we were negotiating deal points on the new lease.  We had found the current stove to be not-functional.  I paused for a moment.  I had really grown to love cooking on gas ranges in my then-current apartment, but I had also never had to set up gas for the first time in France.  While I always welcome new opportunities to learn about life in my adopted country, moving had its own headaches and my stoicism failed me for a moment.  She sensed my hesitation, “I don’t think it’s had gas for a while, but I can understand if you want it.”  There really wasn’t a difference in the price points of the new stoves she was planning to buy for me.  After a bit of hesitation, I hedged: “Let’s go with a hybrid.”  In this case that meant that one of the 4 ranges, as well as the oven, was electric, but the remaining 3 ranges were gas powered.  That was the easiest part of the process.

The detective work begins

In France a copy of your EDF (it technically stands for “Electricity de France” but may or may not actually be from EDF – more on that later) is an integral part of your bureaucratic life.  You can use it to prove residence and can use it for something as complicated as a citizenship dossier to something as (seemingly) simple as changing your address with your bank (more on that in a future article).  On the left hand side of an EDF bill (I’ve never used another provider) towards the bottom you’ll see something called, “Point de livraison” (PDL for short).  This is a 14 digit number that tells EDF exactly where your domicile is (and hence where their staff need to travel to).  Since almost everyone has to have electricity (not everyone has Tesla solar panels and power walls installed yet!) this is usually not difficult to obtain.  In the overwhelming majority of cases, your landlord/landlady (proprietaire en Francais) will have an old bill and can give you the PDL.  In the minority of cases where it’s not readily available, if you have at least the last name of the previous tenant, or even the last dates they were there, plus the street address, that should be enough.

But I didn’t have any problem setting up electricity.  I was trying to set up gas service, and for that I needed a 10 digit PCE (Point de comptage).  There had not been gas service since 2009 at this location and I had failed to note that while there was a “gas pipe” coming into the kitchen it didn’t look anything like the gas hookup I had at my then-current apartment.  Oh well, they would take care of that (I thought).  With gas last being used in the place before my current landlady owned the apartment, it was off to GrDF to try to find out the PCE.

Deregulated utilities

Now, let me explain.  GrDF (Gaz Reseau Distribution France) does not actually provide you with gas.  They are simply responsible for the infrastructure that delivers the gas to your provider.  If gas goes out in a neighborhood they are the ones who will fix it.  The minute the gas enters your house it is the concern of the “fournisseur,” or provider of the gas.  As with electricity, the market is very deregulated (the irony of the socialist country having many options for utilities whereas the US, which touts itself as very market-based, often has only 1 or 2 choices – if any – for utilities) and you can choose lots of providers.  I wanted to keep my life simple, so after we found out where the PCE was (about 15 minutes of questioning and digging) we ordered gas service, even as the lady tried to talk me into buying a bottle that I could manually attach and get refilled.  EDF serves as both the infrastructure provider and as a “fournisseur.” Hence, I opted for simplicity and made EDF the provider for both electricity and gas, not bothering to shop around because I felt my time could be better spent than comparing costs per kilowatt hour, and variable vs flat billing.

About 10 days later, I met someone from EDF at an appointed time who had a meter with him ready to install, but he looked at me blankly when I showed him where to install it.  “But, this isn’t right,” he sputtered.  After he spoke really quickly, with hand gestures, I asked him to slow down his French and perhaps assist me with a drawing.  He went on to explain that the meter had an input valve and an output valve and it was configured a very specific way, and that I could hire a plumber who was certified to install and/or work on gas pipes and he could help further.

Armed with the drawing, we had a handyman install the necessary pipes and reschedule a visit for the meter installation another 10 days later.  In the meantime, I was grateful for the decision to go hybrid, as in the absence of the working gas ranges, the electric range was doing all the duty for cooking.  This time the meter man came and installed the meter (you can see the picture, though I did go on to paint the pipes a few weeks later) and a short time later, the first gas flames were firing in the apartment.

One more thing, of course

Given that it had been a number of years since gas had been installed in the apartment, for safety reasons the city of Paris demands that the installation be certified, and about 6 weeks after the meter was installed and working, a functionary came by, examined the installation, gave it a score, and left.  I “passed.”  All in all, it took nearly 10 weeks to get working gas in the house for one single appliance (the rest of the appliances in the house are electric) but as someone who enjoys cooking very much, and on gas particularly so, the hassle was worth it, and hopefully, a lesson learned for you all as well: if you’re going to be installing gas for the first time in a while in your apartment, be prepared for some pains.

I want to take a moment to thank in particular my friend Jenny, who helped during a particularly painful appointment process one afternoon when we were shuttled by telephone between GrDF and EDF as each tried to pass the buck to the other as to who would make the appointment for the meter installation.  It took one hour in total and culminated with the “French blowout” of frustration as Jenny let one of the “it’s not my probleme” clerks have a piece of her (French) mind.  The French are not known to be patient in general, even less so with utilities, so I appreciated the help as I didn’t have the technical vocabulary to navigate between the two agencies.  Yet another reason it pays to have French friends?  To help you with your French problems. 🙂

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 TAIP 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 than Geneva person in Switzerland, anyway).  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 train tickets 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.