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.

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