Three Years On, Part II: Changes

Next month I begin my fourth year in Paris.  I wanted to use the milestone to share some reflections on how I have changed and ongoing tips on how to make the move yourself.  This is the second in a series of four.  You can find the first one here.

When people ask me “Why France?” I usually answer the question in Russian-doll format – answering “why Europe,” then “why France,” then “why Paris.”  So too, when I reflect on how three years of living in Europe have changed me, I think in these categories.

PARIS

Cars: more than ever I am anti-car.  Paris has an outstanding and extensive network of buses, trams, metros, and bikes, all overlaid across a city which is eminently walkable.  I support the current Mayor’s ongoing legislative push to exclude cars from the city center.  Cars are not a divine right.  They are an innovation, and they need to be put in their place side-by-side with pedestrians, bikes, scooters, etc., not accommodated as the sine qua non of modern life.

Neighborhood-focused: in my first year in Paris I went all over the city to visit restaurants and bars to know the city better, until I fell into the familiar routine of most Parisians: staying within a 15 minute walk of my apartment.  There is a deep comfort and familiarity that comes from knowing your streets and block by heart.  Sixty-five percent of my Paris life is located inside 8 streets near my house in the 2nd.  I love that, and I love knowing all the nooks and crannies that make up that little world.

FRANCE

Language: with classes and study it’s not difficult to obtain a conversational level of French quite quickly – but beyond that you will have to study diligently, because if you don’t have to speak a lot of French every day, your progress will be slower than those who do.  I’ve learned to be patient with my progress.

Scale change: France is roughly “.8 Texas” in size, I often tell people.  I’ve gotten used to the idea that France is a “big country” and that Belgium is a “small country” and that Liechtenstein is a “tiny country.”  When I contemplate it now I realize just how enormous the US seems to most of the rest of the world.  And yet, as a believer in smaller countries (I believe they are more easily governed) I am ever more convinced that the US is simply too large of a country to be governed well.  It’s breaking into 3-5 nations would do the entire world much good, as the instant effects would be to end dollar hegemony and US military overreach.  It’s also the only circumstance under which I would ever contemplate a return to the US, because then there would be real hope for real change.

Bureaucracy: I understand the French completely in this regard now.  They want all their paperwork just so, and everytime I’ve had it thus, the process, whatever it has been, has been expeditious.  Fill out the forms and wait.

Dairy Snob: In America it is the cereal and snack isles that present you with almost limitless choices, though it’s all highly processed and generally not good for you.  In France you are confronted with that same panoply of choice when you get to the cheese, yogurt, and dairy sections.  The French truly love their dairy products, and most French cows are kept in the grazing conditions they have enjoyed for centuries.  You get to really love good butter, cheese, yogurt, and milk.

EUROPE

Guns: I have come to realize that America’s gun culture is a weird substitute religion.  I served in the US military and as such have, in the past, owned and used guns for range practice, to keep up my marksmanship.  But this whole “right to bear arms” is an irrelevancy in the age of drones.  Stockpiling weapons only makes sense if you’re:

a) paranoid enough to think that the government is going to come to take them or
b) stupid enough to think you have training, skills, or firepower to resist if they do or
c) you are willing to die for the abstract “right to bear arms” (whatever that means) which would make you a martyr for your gun religion.

Guns, in their proper context, can be an enjoyable hobby, like archery.  But in America, it’s a religion, and that’s unfortunate, because it’s pretty poor fare, as religions go.

The EU: I came to Europe as a hardcore Euroskeptic and lover of small government and nation-state sovereignty.  I was in Glasgow for the Scottish Referendum in 2014, cheering for Yes, I was in London for Brexit, cheering for Leave, and yet I live in France, a nation that was a founding member of what is now known as the EU.

I would say that I am still a lover of small government and would happily support Scottish departure from the UK and Catalonian separation from Spain.  Let them try it on their own.  The worst that can happen is failure – but at least it’s something ventured.

And yet, I see that the EU does do good.  I accept that it has played a role in keeping the peace, but it must share credit at least equally with NATO, which has more than words to back itself up.  If the EU is to succeed (and I’m not opposed to its success) its future might lie in a two-tier approach – one in which there is tighter, deeper cooperation – for example with France, Benelux, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, in which there is an integrated government, executive, and judiciary, and a second tier which is the greater EU, which would lie outside a currency union but exist in a free trade zone with some limitations on freedom of movement.  This would allow countries to sign up for more Europe or less Europe, and it would be better than the current “one size fits all” absurdity that puts Greece in a currency union with Germany.  The world is changing and the EU too must change if it wants to not just survive, but thrive.  Hence I remain a Euroskeptic…of the current iteration of the EU.  Hopefully it can change, especially as Brexit negotiations will lead to existential questions.

Pace of Travel: When I was a tourist visiting Europe from the States, and even in my first year here, I was in a frantic “see all the things” mode.  Who knew when I would be in Europe again, I thought to myself, so why not go at a breakneck pace?  But when you live here you realize it’s all within reach, be it a 10€ bus ticket, 25€ train ride, or 50€ flight.  And, should you keep your health and wits about you, it will continue to endure and be there for you.  So, when my friends come to visit, I try to slow them down too.

Pace of Life: This is perhaps the most wonderful thing about my life in Europe.  I’m a business owner and have been for many years.  As such I’ve been able to take off for short and long trips at almost any time of the year.  But I could only do so with fellow independents.  In Europe, all my friends with jobs have plenty of vacation time, and as such we can take short trips together all throughout the year.  We partition life and work and leave the office in its place when it’s time for life, and vice versa.  Americans throw around the phrase “work hard play hard” but, in Europe, it’s just called life: there’s work, there’s life, and time to enjoy both.  No need to binge or “go hard” on either.

Through all these changes I observe that there is no “right” way to do things in various countries and cultures.  There are just different ways to do things.  But, some of those ways are better than others, and I happen to think that Europe does a lot of things well.

French Work Benefits: truly unbelievable

We were in line to pay for our portions of the meal.  It was in Grenoble and many of my native French companions had opted for raclettes, the delicious and hearty mountain food of the Alps.  I wanted to encounter Savoyarde cuisine a bit more “head on” and opted for tete-de-veau.  As the guest in front of me paid, she ripped off a sequence of cheques, each denominated in 10€.  My eyes drifted to the bottom of the cheque: it read “cheque vacance.”  I made the mental connection, and then incredulous, I started laughing.  “Quoi?” my friend nudged.  “You…you…you people get money to go on vacation?” I queried.  Julien laughed, “Oui, mon ami.”  As we got into the car to drive back to Paris after a weekend of skiing, I made a note in my journal: “Hunt down all French work benefits.”  That was almost two years ago, and it’s high time I finally shared my findings with you.  Americans, please take a seat.  You’re not going to believe this.

I’ve divided the benefits into two categories.  There are the benefits that are required by law, which everyone gets, and there are those “optional” benefits which are only provided by certain companies.  I’m going to leave aside the discussion of cadre/non-cadre as well as CDD vs. CDI for another time.  I just want to focus on benefits.

Standard Benefits (required by law)

RTT (Réduction du Temps de Travail)

Everyone knows about the 35-hour work week, but what you don’t know is that the French are required to be compensated for the time they work beyond those 35 hours, and that comes out to a minimum of 2.5 days per month, every month of the year, at most large companies for those on a CDI.  That adds up to 30 days per year using that accounting – though some have told me they get as “few” as 10 days per year as they are only on the clock for 38,5 hours per week.

CP (Congés Payés)

Everyone is required, after the first year of work, to be provided with an additional 5 weeks of paid vacation per year.  If you add the RTT and CP, you can begin to understand why the entire country is gone from roughly July 15-September 1st, and still has leftovers for personal vacations in the Winter and Spring.

Fêtes Nationales

The National Holidays were actually more numerous before the disestablishment of the Catholic Church (“holiday” is simply an elision of “Holy Day”) and because Napoleon wanted to show his power over the Church, in the Condordat he signed with Pope Pius VII in 1801, he suppressed a number of ancient feast days.  So, the number of national holidays would be even higher if it weren’t for Napoleon, who had a bit of a workaholic streak in him.  As it is, the national holidays of France, long called “bank holidays” in England, to commemorate that country’s true religion, finance, include:

The Circumcision (January 1st)
Easter Monday
Labor Day (May 1st)
Ascension Thursday
V-E Day (May 8th)
Pentecost Monday
July 14th
The Assumption (August 15th)
All Saints (November 1st)
Armistice Day (November 11th)
Christmas (December 25th)

If you were keeping track, that’s 11 days.  For a so-called secular state, the French do keep an overwhelming majority of ancient Catholic feast days, with only one “commemoration” of  bloodthirsty revolution.  I suppose you could count Armistice Day and V-E Days as commemorations of the wars that democracy gave us.

Public Transport subsidy

If you take public transportation to work, your employer must subsidize at least 50% of the cost of your pass.

Food subsidy

I couldn’t get a clear answer on the exact amounts, but you get vouchers called “ticket restaurant,” which are a 50/50 split between you and your employer.  This means if you get a series of 10€ daily vouchers, you have contributed 5€ and your employer has matched 5€, making for 10€.  Some, like my friend Adam, get as much as 19€/day, and keep in mind, you aren’t limited to buying lunch only with those vouchers: you can use them for grocery shopping.  There is some movement away from the vouchers into a electronic debit card-based system (to prevent hoarding and mass-cashing at the end of the year), but that will take a while.

American reaction: “You get free money!”
French response (glumly, with a frown): “Yeah, we pay half.”

American glares at French person.
French person shrugs, repeats and says, “What, it’s true!”

Tuition Reimbursement

If you wish to take classes or training, possibly even training to change your career and quit your current job, your employer has to pause your job and allow you to take those classes.  Your employer may refuse twice, but may not refuse if you request a third time.

Compte Professionnel de Formation (formerly droit individuel à la formation)

You earn points in a personal account even via part-time work.  You can use these points towards paid training and certifications either in your career or to change careers.  These points do not expire and belong to you, not your employer.

Wait, there’s more vacation: Maternity and Paternity Leave

French women are entitled to 16 weeks of paid maternity leave and French men are entitled to 11 days of paid paternity leave, though the French men are having to be encouraged to use this benefit as its culturally quite new.

Life Days Off (yes, more vacation)

If you get married, you are entitled to 4 days off, if you get into a civil union, you can get 1 day off.  If there is a death in your direct family (spouse or children), you can get 2 days off.  If one of your children is getting married, you can get one day off.

Mutuelle (because inexpensive health care wasn’t good enough)

Beginning this year, the Mutuelle, which was a paid private plan you could acquire (from a number of different companies) to make up the balance of payments of the 30% of medical costs you often handle (the State takes on 70%) now has to be provided for you by your employer.  So that bit of health care you did have to pay for?  That’s been taken care of as well.

Optional Benefits (yeah, there’s even more)

Treizième mois

So, some companies pay you for a “13th month” each year.  The purpose?  So you don’t have to set aside savings to pay for your taxes.

Cheques Vacance

You heard about this already – this kicked off the idea for this article years ago.

Cheques Cadeau

Well, because at Christmastime, you can’t actually be expected to pull from your savings to buy gifts.  Grab your chequebook, with 10-15 cheques denominated in, you guessed it, 10€ increments.

Comité d’enterprise

If you have at least 50 employees, this is required and .2% of the company wages must be diverted to fund the benefits it provides, which includes discounted movie and theater tickets, among other things.  Smaller companies do not necessarily have this.

* * *

So, whenever I begin to catalogue this list of benefits to the French, I get some silly speech about how they “fought” for these “rights” and that they have been “earned.”  This is, of course, absurd.  No one has a “right” to a job.  Those of us who have actually signed the front of a paycheck, not just the back, know that.  These laws are coercive measures that are leveled by the French government on companies that do business in France.  It is to maintain a standard of living in this magnificent jewel of a country.  The only price?  Innovation.

The reason that the US and other countries so far outdistance not just France, but Europe, in innovation, is because startups are allowed to figure life out before they are yoked with the duties of taxation.  France, as the laws are currently construed, is a fundamentally anti-business country.  There is no balance whatsoever – it is all about the responsibilities and obligations of the employers, which must take all the risk, while the State and the citizens/employees are completely shielded.  This is not real life.  This is the artificial reality created in France.

What do the French retain in exchange for losing the ability to innovate at the speed of the internet?  Stability.  The French have a really good life, thank you very much, and they don’t care if they aren’t keeping up with the rest of the world.  And that’s what those of us who come to this country to make our lives are fundamentally at peace with: the unbelievable burden carried solely by the private sector of the French economy is the price that is paid to have such a good life.  No one forces these French companies to stay here – they can leave and go anytime they want – and the young French don’t have to create companies here – they can go to the US or other friendlier climes.  This isn’t to say that there is no startup scene here in France.  There is – it’s exciting – and I’ve been pleased and privileged to work with and interact with some of these startups in the guise of my own small French startup.  These French are earnest about the opportunities, okay with the lack of a safety net, and grateful for the flexibility that the startup universe offers.  But they face challenges they simply would not have to face in America – and it slows them down.

But that’s the question at the heart of this: is speed what you’re after?  If so, then France isn’t for you, anyway.  Come here for stability, tradition, and pride.  But let’s be clear: these benefits cannot reasonably be construed into a narrative of “rights” that were “earned.”  It’s a ransom that is extorted.  It is paid perhaps reluctantly, but it is paid, nonetheless.  Because life really is that good here, despite all the hassles, paperwork, and these days, bombs and bullets.

The photo was taken at the hottest times of the protests against the new reform of labor laws this year, back in May.  That was, of course, before severe flooding prematurely dampened the resolve of people complaining about gold-plated privileges they never earned and consider “rights.”

Why so serious: French advertising

More and more American audiences are getting used to something that has happened in French movie theaters for some years now: advertising that has nothing to do with movies, but is cinematic (and often quite serious) in scope.  The challenge is that it’s hard not to laugh at any of these pleas for you to buy stuff.  Sometimes it’s just so over the top.  As I’m often the only one laughing when this stuff comes on I try to laugh quietly so as not to be the obvious American who finds it ridiculous.  Take, for example this ad for Dior starring Johnny Depp, which plays on all the mysterious and bad-boy tropes that the French love.

Depp manages to be Captain Jack Sparrow while fearing and loathing Las Vegas.  Oh, yes, and I’m supposed to want Dior after all this dark mystery.  Is this aimed at me or the ladies?

But, Dior has a diverse portfolio, and for the vampire types who like Led Zeppelin, you can watch Robert Pattinson:

Dior is playing the “get the girl” card that you normally associate with these male cologne ads.  Along with this, it’s now the mode to use English in your ads.  Witness this hilarity in which an advertisement designed for the French marketplace ends with a subtitle for the English catchphrase at the end of it.

Diesel ups the “get the girl” ante with Thor’s brother, Chris Hemsworth, in this ad:

Yes, buying cologne is now an act of bravery.

I understand I’ve only been focusing on the obvious (yes, Stephen we get that the French are into their cologne). But, coffee is also a pretty serious thing in La France. Check out this ad for Carte Noire, a supplier of off-brand capsules for the Nespresso machines (Americans know “Keurig” as the single-serve coffee machine, but no one knows what a Keurig is here, but everyone knows Nespresso). Keep in mind that Carte Noire is not even a Nespresso brand, it’s just a knock-off, and this is the length that they go to in order to get us to buy their coffee:

When I was first in France the famous (now long past) campaign of George Clooney for Nespresso was part of my introductory French language class, as it featured some simple subtitled text for us to translate and practice. I found the campaign to be funny, intelligent, and perfect for Nespresso. Unlike the other commercials I’ve shown so far, the series that Clooney did was all about poking fun at himself – he always thinks the women know who he is (and desperately want him), but they are always interested solely in the coffee:

For the record, this is my favorite one:

It introduced an expression that’s part of pop vernacular now. Clooney says, “What else?” and in French this translates to “Quoi d’autre?” and you can use this expression in situations and almost everyone knows what you are alluding to (the expression, as it’s equivalent in English, obviously stands alone apart from this ad, but the intelligence of the writers was in co-opting it).

So there’s cologne and coffee, and I’ll end my amusement today (and hopefully yours as well) with this ad for a famous French ice cream company, Magnum:

The French take this seriously. So, promise me not to laugh too hard when you watch it with them. 🙂

This story also appeared on Medium.

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The Airbnb War continues in Paris

I wrote some time back rather passionately about forces conspiring to stifle Airbnb and Uber in Paris.  The City of Paris recently upped the ante by publishing a website that shows all the properties that are “properly registered” as airbnbs in the city.  Unsurprisingly, the French, operating from a cultural sensitivity to “denouncements” of neighbors during WWII, reacted strongly to this and labeled it a “rat on your neighbors” policy.  If anything, it will cause a backlash among even those neutral to slightly negative on airbnb.

To catch up those who aren’t familiar with the intricacies of Parisian housing policy, anyone is allowed to rent space within their own personal home, for example a spare room or a couch in a living room, provided that they either own the space or have permission from the landlord.  In one recent landmark case, an owner sued a tenant and won for letting out an apartment without permission.  The law additionally allows you to rent a space you don’t occupy for up to 120 days a year, which would cover a long absence from Paris (or several) for whatever reason.

The argument goes that these short-term rentals are changing the makeup of the city and of particular neighborhoods, and to an extent, this is true.  And yet, all these short-term rentals represent opportunities of pure revenue for Paris – everyone coming to the city is going to spend money and hotels and hostels alone don’t meet demand.  Indeed, Airbnb has moved the goalposts on what a travel stay consists of now – no longer prisoner to the social desert of a hotel or the social overload of a hostel, people can choose a third way, in which they sometimes have an unofficial guide to the city, whether that be as simple as answering a few questions before arrival or as far as leading them on a cool walk about town.  Airbnb is now saying, “don’t just visit there, live there, if only for one night.”

Paris is unlikely to get Berlinian about Airbnb, but given that there are fewer than 200 properties on the “official” register out of over 40,000 listings makes it clear that there is still a gap in reality and expectation between a city being brutally lobbied by the hotel industry (and a Republique that is insistent on taxing everything it can touch, and even what it can’t) and a Parisian populace only too glad to get some help paying the bills by renting out some personal space.  In a way, it’s time for the residents of Paris to benefit from Paris’ reputation as well – given that that they have to put up with (without compensation) a neverending flow of tourists  throughout the year.

For now, it seems clear that anyone who is renting out wholly unoccupied spaces on a short-term basis 100% of the year better watch out.  I suggest divesting yourself or pivoting into long-term rentals.  Otherwise, be warned that the city is coming for you, and it will cost you tens of thousands of euros if you get caught.

Book Club: Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gopnik

My favorite book written about Paris from the expat perspective is the series of essays written for The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik that was later compiled into a book called Paris to the Moon.  As the book’s magical title promises, it is a thoughtful and earnest look at a city Gopnik never intended to permanently live in, but experienced more deeply in six years than some people do in a lifetime.  

Gopnik has gifted me with some ways to express feelings and sentiments I have in my new country, from saying that we “breathe in our native language, but swim in our second,” to his chapter on “Distant Errors” in which he deconstructs, albeit kindly, the French tendency to look at problems or errors as distant – as something external rather than related to their own thinking and behaving, to his explanation of “white helicopter” thinking among the French (in contrast to the American “black helicopter” idiom, which is a meme for conspiracy theories) that there is always the possibility that a future government will offer a higher pension and a lower retirement age.

Adam’s approach to life in France is certainly one I wish to emulate, though my French needs to improve in order to do so.  He is at home as the American he will always be, while truly attempting to live life as the French do, day in and day out, in dealing with strikes, by protesting the takeover of a favorite restaurant, by enjoying holidays enthusiastically (I wonder sometimes if the French love the planning and anticipation more than the holiday itself), and even in the ceremony of childbirth, which both he and his wife participate in.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the book particularly germane to the subjects covered in this blog: “Everything about moving to Paris has been wonderful, and everything about emigrating to France, difficult.”

As it perhaps, should be.  This life should only be available to those who truly want it.

Book Club: A Year in the Merde, by Stephen Clarke

I read a lot of books about Paris and France before moving here and I’ve only recently realized I might do well to share them with you.  So, I’ll start with an old favorite.

It was the second week I was in Paris.  I had just gone to an Asterix exposition at the ugly BNF (Bibliotheque Francois Mitterand), with my friend Julien, who I had met in Adelaide, Australia, a year earlier (a story for another time).

“Stefan,” (this is how the French pronounce my name), “Stefan, do you know zis booke, ah, a year in dee Merde?”  I nodded that I had vaguely heard of it, but not much more.

He started laughing.  “Oh, you must read it!  It is soooo funny!  And it’s true!”  Julien is a great guy – a real anglophile to boot – though he insists that when we go on ski trips I only speak French – so I gave his recommendation its due importance and in time purchased and read the book.

It was, as he had warned me, absolutely hilarious.  One time I almost choked on my tongue while reading in the metro because I was laughing so hard.  Another time, while I was buying groceries at Franprix, I noticed that the checkout guy started to giggle quietly because he saw the book under my arm.  “C’est vrai?” I asked him, left eyebrow raised.  “Oui – tous!” he responded.

So, Stephen Clarke, the author, invented this fictional Paul West character who comes to Paris for a job and gets caught in the life of apartments, work, and love.  It’s told from an anglo perspective, and it’s particularly funny if you’ve lived in Paris for any period of time because the jokes hit on the realities of everyday life.  Some memorable lines from the book include:

Jean-Marie did the hugest shrug I’d ever seen, even outdoing the man in the electric shop.  His shoulders, arms, his whole rib cage, took off vertically in a gesture of infinite indifference.

and this

The Paris police are the best in the world at one thing – sitting in buses.”

and this

Red lights are like queues,” he said scornfully, “They are for people who have time to waste.”

It’s not a perfect book, by any means, but it’s very revealing in its takedown of the French.

Clarke was a bit taken aback, I’m sure, by his success, and has gone on to write at least two other books on this theme, which I have, unfortunately, also read.  I say unfortunately because these books go beyond the playful fictional satirical conceit of the first book and just linger in stereotype that is, over time, increasingly unfunny.

Yes, it was funny that first time – but if you want to keep going you’re going to have to go deeper.  In comedy, the analogue would be the first Austin Powers movie – the first one was funny in so many ways – the others were horrible.  Same with the sleeper Liam Neeson hit film Taken.  I love that movie.  Which is probably precisely why I hate the sequels so.

Perhaps we as moderns don’t understand that success can be solitary (witness Harper Lee being huckstered into releasing an inferior and revisionist novel in her dotage).  Success doesn’t mean having to repackage your great idea as something only slightly different.  Indeed, success is sometimes leaving well enough alone.

So, read this first one.  Skip the rest of Clarke’s catalogue.

Paris: frontline of Airbnb and Uber’s wars

As a resident of France I appreciate that the French hold on to their traditions and ways of life and are generally skeptical of change.  Unmoderated and unguarded acceptance of change isn’t always the best thing.  Nowhere is this more a topic of conversation these days than with Airbnb and Uber.

These two American juggernauts have seized upon a simple idea and commercialized it: there is spare space in your home or car – if someone wants to rent that space for some period of time, and you are willing to allow them to rent it – you can complete an exchange of commerce.  Furthermore, in many cases, the necessary taxes are paid by the company, the provider, the end-user, or all three.  So what’s the problem?

In France?  “Les acquis.”  This term refers to the amorphous set of benefits and “rights” that the French feel broadly entitled to, and are willing to march in the streets to protect.  Not only (in their mind) are these rights guaranteed forever, but in all likelihood, these rights will only get better and sweeter with time.  I’m not going to talk about this concept for the moment.  I only want to use it as a reference point to help you understand why the hotels and taxi companies are absolutely livid about these two unicorns.

In a universe of acquis you have jobs and economic systems for life.  No pesky disruptions.  Year after year your universe is set and perfect.  Taxi-driving schools collect millions of euros in tuition and hotels collect hundreds of millions of euros in bookings. Never mind that both taxi companies and hotels employ tens of thousands of foreign workers and hence this can’t be argued to be about “French jobs.”

Indeed, it is a question of secrets.  In his book Zero to One Peter Thiel talks about the discovery of secrets as key to billion-dollar businesses.  The discovery of sharing unused space was a secret.  Overnight it created, in essence, the largest room-provider and largest transportation companies in the world.  Not by a massive capital spend, but by really intuitive software that could connect the provider and the end-user.  This massively democratizes micro-entrepreneurship by lowering barriers to entry.  You would think this would be welcome in a country that carves “liberte, egalite, fraternite” into the stonework of their buildings.

And yet, the French, used to the idea that anything you do with your time for money has to come with an enormous raft of benefits, including 2 years of unemployment pay, burn and flip cars and raid apartments in protest.  Who are they hurting?  Uber and Airbnb have more money, time, focus, and brains to devote to winning this matter legally – or they will simply pick up and leave.  In the meantime, people who own cars or apartments in Paris who are simply making some money to defray their costs of ownership, as well as everyday commuters and travelers looking to save money, are the ones actually penalized.

Despite the fact that “entrepreneur” is a French word, fundamental disconnects like this happen.  Entrepreneurs don’t get acquis.  We build our own acquis over time, with hard work, perseverance, and a tremendous amount of sacrifice.  No one forces us to do it.  We provide willing services to those willing to pay us – we’re even happy to pay taxes…to a point.

It is the convergence of these two attitudes – the inbuilt idea of acquis and a population that prefers guaranteed jobs for life to entrepreneurship (because they are fundamentally risk-averse) that leads to such a strong pushback against these services in this country.

And yet, it seems to be politically motivated.  Many of the people my age (and younger) actively use Airbnb and Uber here in Paris.  We know what hotels are and we know what taxis are.  We have used them, many times.  We also know that airbnbs and ubers are neither hotels nor taxis, and come with their own risks (as if hotels and taxis are risk free!).  But we understand that it’s important for people to have lots of choices.  Transportation-wise, that’s what makes getting around easier: buses, metros, taxis, ubers, bikes, scooters, and yes, walking.  Indeed, Uberpool is even an innovation among taxis – using intelligent software and gps to save everyone time and money.

And yet, despite a multi-million euro settlement with Airbnb last year, the City of Paris is being pressed by the hotel lobby for more raids.  And the ride-sharing industry is under pressure after a recent taxi strike.

In English we say, “the cat is out of the bag” to say what has happened has happened, and that you can’t go back.  Parisians have discovered that they can make money renting out their homes and cars.  Hotels and taxi companies have discovered that their guaranteed monopolies are over.  The City of Paris is caught in between them.  But the secret is out, and the hotels and taxis are in for a very rude awakening should any real move be made to ban Airbnb and Uber in Paris.

The photo used comes from the Independent.

This article was also published on Medium and LinkedIn.

The Clothing Inventory: How I escaped the French sales season

The “official sales dates” in France are roughly January 6-February 16 and June 22-August 2.

SOLDES!  The all caps scream out at you from all the shops in Paris – then there’s the deuxième démarque, and the dernier…at each stage the frantic pace increases, and stores get progressively messier as the “regular” sizes sell out.

Paris will up your fashion IQ – even if you never planned for it.  Scarves, shoes, jackets – I had definitely upgraded since moving, and there’s always something you can add…or is there?

I wrote some time ago about forced decluttering and about how a small Paris apartment forces you to be thoughtful about your “stuff.”  Combine that with a recent shine I’ve taken to the Minimalists and their ideas, and I was Rey resisting Kylo Ren…must not buy…clothes on sale…I tried to remind myself that he/she saves the most when nothing is spent.

But willpower wasn’t enough.  I took a clothing inventory.  Apart from socks/underwear I simply counted every piece of clothing I had.  Every scarf, tie, shirt, shoe, jacket, etc.  I typed it all up and printed out the 2-page document and looked it over.  There were no spots I needed to fill.  I had a great wardrobe.  Indeed, I realized that still some might go away via the 90-day rule I’ve observed since 2010 – if it’s in season (ex: sweaters in winter) and I haven’t worn it in 90 days, it has to be given to someone else who will use it better than I will, or to a place that takes clothing donations.  So, instead of getting sucked into the sales season I took an opportunity to remind myself that I might be getting rid of some clothes as we move from Winter to Spring.

If making the clothing inventory isn’t enough – print it out and carry it with you so that every time you want to make a purchase during the sales season you can pull it out and check yourself. 🙂

Shipping-The-Force-Rey-and-Kylo-Ren-470

“Soldes” photo from pterjan.  Creative Commons.

French for “Customer Service”

“It’s not my problem”

-accompanied by a shrug, said by almost every French person ever to a customer in need of help.

The quote above is a caricature, surely, but my French friends will admit it’s pretty close to the truth.  It’s my third year here in Paris, and when your expectations are so very low, when you get surprised, you want to share it.  So, here are two such stories.

Groupama

Groupama provides my renter’s insurance, something that is helpful in itself, but is also a requirement of most of my visa visits, including my recent one to move away from visitor status to a path to citizenship.

However, they, like many French insurers, make it impossible to cancel a policy online.  You have to go in person and provide a signed etat de lieu as proof you have moved out.  Your word is not enough (same thing happens at the bank when you try to change your address).  Do you have proof?

In any event I had moved out of this place roughly 6 months before I managed to get to my insurer.  I took the blame, as other things always seemed to take priority.  Not only was the cancellation smooth, only taking a few minutes, but the agent marked the cancellation to the end of the lease, and credited my account with 6 months of premiums!

As the French write: “Waoh!”

Decathlon

The next mission was already impossible in my mind before I attempted it, but in the spirit of “try everything once” I took back two inflatable mattresses to Decathlon.  I had purchased the first one for guests who might stay at my apartment and it worked fine for months.  Until it started to slowly deflate.  I spent some time trying to find the slow leak so I could patch it, but no dice.  It was only 15€ and I hadn’t kept the receipt.  I bought another.  This one started deflating almost immediately.

I called it a day on the inflatable mattress plan and bought a Japanese-style fold out bed at Castorama.  No deflation possible!  But I still had two non-functional inflatable mattresses.

I suggested to a couple French friends that I would try to return the beds without a receipt (I had idiotically not kept the second one, either).  They laughed derisively.

“I’ll just play the dumb American,” I said.  “Plus, I’m willing to accept store credit.”  Turns out I didn’t have to.

I arrived at the enormous subterranean Decathlon near the Madeleine (Americans, think Dick’s Sporting Goods or Sports Chalet) and got into the returns line.  When it got to be my turn I explained that I didn’t want an exchange, but that I wanted to return these mattresses for store credit.  The young girl called a colleague over, who then walked with me to the camping department, where the inflatable mattresses lived, in order to observe the malfunction.  And to my dismay, the same thing happened as whenever I brought an Apple device to an Apple store for troubleshooting: nothing.  I almost wonder if the Apple Store is a stern father figure for my Apple devices and they suddenly “behave” when they are at home.

I watched, bemused, as the inflated mattress which had deflated over and over in my home held the air intact.  We even tried sitting on it to force the leak.  Not a peep.  Resolute as Churchill on the beaches.

The kid read my incredulous expression.  “Don’t worry,” he said in French.  He walked me to the counter, got me a gift card for the value of both mattresses, and as I walked out of the store and held the gift card in my hand, contemplating the imposing facade of the Madeleine, I smiled.

Maybe there is a French word for “customer service” after all.

PS  Don’t worry, I have a horror story to share in the future for those who wish to further the paradigm of “the French just don’t care about customer service.” 🙂

 

Picard: a dirty little secret of the French

So before we arrive in La France, we non-French perhaps imagine that all French people have an advanced knowledge of wines and cheeses, and while we don’t expect the full Julia Child/Jacques Pepin experience, we expect that most native French should be able to make a few classic French dishes from scratch, from maman‘s recipes or perhaps from grandmere.  This is not an unreasonable expectation.

What you don’t expect, what you can’t possibly believe, is that a store like Picard exists.

picardIt only sells frozen food.  To be warmed up in an oven or microwave.  No, this isn’t some monstrosity dreamed up by an American.  This. Is. In. France.  And it’s wildly popular.

“I, I just can’t believe Picard exists,” I sputter to my French friends.  A slow smile often creeps into their mien – but Stephen, it has good food, bio (organic), you know – I wave my hand dismissively.  “Do you realize your word for kitchen (cuisine) means, essentially, thoughtful or good food in my language?  And then I find out that you guys are warming up premade food?”

“Oh, but Stephen, you know, no time, metro, boulot, dodo, etc.”

“In the land of the 35-hour work week?” I ask plaintively.

Now, I’m being a bit unfair about that 35-hour work week as I’ll explain in a future article about the work lives of the French.  Suffice to say I have more than one French or expat friend who works until 20h00 on weeknights, so I fully understand and believe the, “I’m too tired to cook” response.  I know, because I’ve been there.  I’ve come home later than 22h00 many nights when I lived in America.

But when life becomes a succession of warming up food (or buying takeaway), what is the point of living here, or anywhere, for that matter?  One of the things I enjoy so much about France is the superabundance of fresh food and produce; butchers, fishmongers, cheesemongers, produce sellers, bakers: they are out at all hours, replicating what has been done for centuries, giving you the key ingredients to make food for yourself.

The thirty minutes you spend warming up some second-rate boxed lasagna, organic or not, could be spent making an omelette or a salad.  Or pasta.  Or grilling some veal, or rabbit, or lamb, while boiling some potatoes or steaming some veg for garnish.  In fact, 30 minutes would be long for “end of workday” versions of any of those suggestions.

I don’t expect all to take as much pleasure as I do in buying food, making my mise-en-place, and delighting in the cooking process, down to the colors of my food in correspondence and interplay with whatever season we find ourselves in.  But I do expect those who inhabit a country conscious enough of their own pride in everything to put a cock on the crest of the national sports teams to live up to the inheritance, the patrimony, they have been bequeathed, and has been bequeathed to the whole world.  The whole world looks to France as a (perhaps the) standard of cooking.

Which means Picard is simply not good enough.  Ever.  Generations who worked in the fields and offices long before Picard existed managed to cook and eat well.  You should too…whatever country or galaxy you live in.

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Postscript: I should note that it’s simply more expensive to eat processed food, both in terms of financial cost and health cost.  However, I tend to see these as “last ditch” arguments.  People should accept the premise that cooking their own food is a good to be desired in and of itself.