Making Friends With The French

Making Friends With The French

One of the things that I was happiest to leave behind in the US is the idea that there’s something wrong with you if you’re not an outgoing extrovert. Throughout my childhood, teenage years, and even into young adulthood I was constantly called shy. My closest friends always laughed at comments like that because I’m actually a very talkative person once you get to know me. That’s the difference between being reserved and shy, and so you can imagine my frustration at being falsely labeled for most of my life.

Then I showed up in France and, spoiler alert, I’ve never been called shy here. France is the place where being discreet is the penultimate. Consider this: have you ever been on the métro in Paris? Have you noticed that most of the time, you could hear a pin drop? Take a moment to really think about it. 

Now, have you ever been on the subway in New York City? I’ll admit that there’s an energy there that you’ll never find in Paris, but one thing that sticks out the most in my mind is the noise. Once, I landed at JFK and had to take the subway out to Brooklyn to meet the friend I was staying with. The shock of just how loud the subway was hit me like a ton of bricks. My jetlag probably didn’t help, but I think you get the idea. 

So in France I feel more at home than I ever have because the fact that I’m reserved is not only accepted here but sought after. When I first got here, I lived with a Franco-American family out in the Parisian suburbs. Almost immediately after I arrived, I got on Meetup and Facebook and got out there to meet people. I was lucky in the fact that I was an au pair, and similarly to international students, au pairs flock together. Just two weeks after stepping foot on French territory, I had found a group of girls with whom I really bonded.

But (le sigh), we were all American. I started meeting more people and they were, second spoiler alert, more English speakers. Australian, Irish, English, even some German people, but all Anglophones. In some way, it felt good to be surrounded by this comfort of a shared language because I was so far from home. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that this wasn’t what I came here to do. I came here to learn new things, meet new (French) people, and, to be honest, I was struggling to do so.

Fast forward to my second year as an au pair. At this point, my group of friends had dwindled down to a solid six people, all English speakers. Once you start living the life of an expat, you realize that other foreigners come and go and you have to be ready to adapt and make new friends at all times. The group that I became close with was also interested in sticking around for the long haul, which is why we gravitated to each other. And, we were all frustrated that we hadn’t made any solid French friends yet.

After 2.5 years as an au pair, I was ready to make a change and yet not at all ready to go back to the United States. I still couldn’t speak French at this point and so I decided to take the plunge and go back to school – in French. Before I could do that I needed to seriously step my French skills up, so I enrolled in an intensive year-long program that promised to get me to the level that I would need to go on and apply for a master’s program. 

So, I moved into my apartment in the sky, otherwise known as an under 100 square foot shoebox on the seventh floor of a Parisian apartment building, and started trading English lessons for free rent (another story for another day!) so that I could focus all of my attention on finally learning French and hopefully making French friends. The learning French thing happened fairly quickly, as it turned out I just needed a little encouragement, a lot of practice, and to be in a classroom where I was the only English speaker. The French friends took much longer.

As it turns out, there aren’t many French people who take intensive French classes (read: none). So while I was happy to have new friends that I could practice my French with, I still ached to truly integrate into French life, and for me, that meant a shiny new group of French friends. I finally got my chance through my best friend here, who is English. She started dating a guy and a few months in, wanted me to meet his group of (French!) friends. 

And so I got ready to meet a bunch of new people, took a deep breath, walked down my seven flights of stairs, and started to walk to the club we were supposed to meet at. I had a great night, was finally able to meet a group of Parisians with whom I could connect and speak in French, and no one called me shy. It was also the first time I met my now-husband. 

The French are notorious for being hard to connect with and well, I used to agree. But, I also think of it like this: when you’re out with your friends, are you on the lookout to meet new people? Probably not. You’re probably just enjoying being with your people and this was a realization that I came to the hard way. I’m also grateful for my experience because it served as another helpful reminder that the world doesn’t revolve around me or my needs. 

Don’t feel discouraged if you’re a fellow expat reading this article. You don’t need to wait three years to learn French and meet French friends. I will say it’s a lot easier if you have an in with at least one French person. If you hit it off, they’ll likely introduce you to the rest of your friends. Once you do have that in, the French are kind, welcoming, and will most likely cook you delicious meals as well as teach you how to pick out a good bottle of wine. And, when you think about it, finding just one French friend is a lot less intimidating than finding a whole group of them, isn’t it?

Molli offers private consultation services which range from help with visas, adjusting to life abroad, to Paris travel itineraries. Click here to learn more.

Photo by Steven Lasry on Unsplash

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euros

How to Get Free Money for Your New Electric Bike in France

One of the aspects of life in French that is perhaps underappreciated by its citizens are the number of benefits on offer at any given time.  Sure, the French will brag to you about all that’s available, but often, they are conquered by the paperwork before they ever begin.  I alluded to that in my article about free money for French classes some time ago.  The hundreds of euros I recently got rebated from various agencies to cover the purchase of my new electric bike only underlined the lesson: if you are willing to do the paperwork correctly, you’re usually going to get what you want in France.

Start with Your City

So I know that there are other municipalities that offer money towards your electric bike purchase, and even though I’m writing this as a Paris resident, the same principles I’ve outlined here are applicable to other areas of France.  That first principle is that all other reimbursement programs for an electric bike purchase look to how your municipality of residence dealt with your purchase.

Parisians start here.  You’re going to create an account.  Before you start excitedly filling out the application, make sure you have digital copies of the following:

  • a receipt with your name and address on it (I bought my bike at Decathlon and they are familiar with this process; once you finish checking out you can go with your receipt to the customer service window and have them print a formal receipt for you which has your name and address – remember to bring something that proves that address)
  • a certificate from the place that you bought the bike certifying that this model meets the EU standards for electric bikes (you can see the one I used for my bike model here)
  • your electricity bill or attestation de hebergement (this proves your residency)
  • your ID (either passport or carte de sejour; no preference)
  • your RIB (reimbursements are, presumably, only to French bank accounts: one more reason you should get one)

It took me half an hour to fill out the paperwork for the City of Paris.  You have to keep in mind that this isn’t entirely “free money.”  Paris wants a lot of data from the people they are giving money to, specifically, data about your mobility habits.  They are wondering how often you take public transportation and how getting this bike is going to affect that, and whether you will be riding the bike in all types of weather or just on the weekends, etc.  They also ask whether you would have bought a new bike if this subsidy program did not exist.  I checked “no,” as I would have bought a used electric bike at half the price rather than a brand new one.

They also ask for a full itemization of your purchase.  I knew that the program offered reimbursements up to 500€ in total so I decided to max that out by also buying a helmet, basket, and lock, all of which are included in the programs.

The bike itself had cost 799€, so when you add 56€ for the lock (one of the most expensive I could find), 35€ for the helmet, and 52€ for the saddlebags and basket, the total was 942€.

I submitted on March 17th and got a response on April 23rd: 219.72€.  They didn’t give any reasoning for the calculus.  While the email told me the money would hit my account within a maximum of two months, it ended up hitting within two weeks.

Also, I didn’t idly wait for the City to rule on my dossier.  I waited a month before sending a follow up via the electronic system and Twitter.  Whoever is running the City’s social media account is paying attention and made sure that my request got answered more quickly and that’s why I think I got my response in five weeks instead of the six to eight you might read about online.  Use social media to your advantage!

Then Try Your Public Transportation Provider

After I submitted my dossier to the City of Paris, I started a simultaneous dossier with IDF Mobilites, which is the agency that is in charge of all the public transportation in the Ile de France region (start here).  While you cannot get a final decision from them until you include the decision from your municipality, you can do every other step of the process in the meantime and submit an incomplete dossier.  Your dossier will then get flagged up for missing this documentation, but hopefully by that time you will have the decision from your municipality and can respond to the flag with the documentation.

While I had correctly done everything else, I had incorrectly submitted my RIB.  I had typed in my personal bank account information but had inexplicably submitted the electronic RIB for my business bank account.  Instead of letting me resubmit, they just trashed my dossier because the numbers didn’t match and made me start over.

So I started the process over with IDF Mobilites on May 10th.  The process and dossier is almost identical to the one for the City of Paris.  The second time I applied I was able to submit proof of the aid I had already received from the City of Paris, which was simply an email informing me of the decision.  While that didn’t strike me as “official” enough, I submitted anyway.  I didn’t get immediate pushback.

Since I had already submitted before, I knew the time to a decision, once they had a complete dossier, was 17 calendar days.  Judging by the file number from my original application in comparison to my second one I calculated that they are getting 300+ applications per day.  That sounds like a lot, until you realize there are 12M people in the region, and not all those dossiers are complete or acceptable.  I submitted on May 18th and hadn’t heard by June 4th and so I sent a gently-worded tweet to their official account.  Three days later I got a decision: 251.28€.  The notifying email gives an even longer lag time for the funds to hit your account: four months.  But again, that was just to give them a wide margin of error.  The money hit within 12 business days.  471€ towards my purchase meant that thanks to these two agencies, exactly half of my bike had been paid for.

When some people (who don’t pay taxes here) expressed dismay at these programs, I noted that not only am I an annual Navigo holder at IDF Mobilites, paying north of 700€ each year for my pass, I also pay various types of taxes to the City of Paris.  I saw these funds as customer/tax rebates for myself which, all told, only took a couple hours of my time, including the actual purchase of the bike in the first place.

But Wait, There’s More!

There’s also a program called Bonus Velo that operates at a national level (but you apply within your specific region: Paris is “Grand Est”) and, unlike the previous two programs I mentioned, is means-tested.  If your French income was below 13,489€ in the previous year, you can qualify.  You must also apply for the program within six months of the original purchase.  I happen to know someone who had applied for this program and asked him for the scoop.

Unlike the other programs, which are entirely online, this one operated in the old-fashioned way: a printed dossier sent by registered mail.  You will need all the same information that you did for the other two dossiers, along with a copy of your previous year’s tax return, but note that the email that you receive from the City of Paris informing you of a favorable decision isn’t considered sufficient “proof” by this agency.  That’s fine.  If you email the City and let them know you need proof for the Bonus Velo program they will send you a more “official” document than an email that conforms to what the Bonus Velo program demands.  You will then have to print that up and include it with your dossier.

This process seems to be faster because if you have a completed dossier you will get a decision within one month of mailing it in.  The person who applied for this program also went through a similar process with the other two agencies (for the same model bike!) and got 200€.  The money arrived within two weeks.

That meant he got 671€ of an original 942€ reimbursed, bringing his effective total for his brand new electric bike, helmet, lock, saddlebags, and basket to 271€.  Not bad!  This is a perfect example of taking advantage of programs that many French people don’t even know about, much less apply for.  The processes just take a bit of time, but immigrants are so used to having to do paperwork just to legally stay in France, that doing paperwork to get money is almost fun, especially when you’ve come to understand how French bureaucracy works at every level.

There are several reasons why I got an electric bike in the first place (although, as a I noted, the incentive to get a new one was the free money) even though I’ve been almost exclusively a metro rider and walker in the City for years now.  But I’ll talk about that more in another article.

Photo by Christian Dubovan on Unsplash

This article also appeared on Dispatches Europe.

free mobile

Firing SFR Mobile

This is the unwitting third in a series of “firing” articles.  Once you realize that it’s definitely more difficult and hence, more satisfying, to fire service providers in France, you are far more willing to do so.  Some time ago I shared the experience of firing Societe Generale, my very first bank in Paris, but a luxury afforded me because I already had a business account at BNP Paribas.  A telemarketing experience late last year gave me the opportunity to much more easily fire EDF in favor of Engie.  When I saw that cost savings in banking and electricity, I wondered where else I might trim the fat.

SFR

I walked into SFR within 24 hours of arriving in France in 2013.  My French was impossibly lacking in confidence and vocabulary.  Thankfully, two of the staff there spoke English fairly well and gave me a list of the documents I would need to get a mobile phone line.  One of those was the banking details (what is known here as a RIB – releve identite bancaire) of my not-yet-in-existence French bank account.  Thankfully, I was able to get a bank account set up the following day, and bank details in hand, I made my way to the SFR store once again.

I knew that I would be calling the United States and I didn’t want to have to switch to Skype all the time to make those calls.  But, unlike cell phone plans in America, cell phone plans in Europe are not only fairly inexpensive with large data packages, but those plans include international calling.

The plan I originally signed up for offered hours and hours of free calls to the US as well as dozens of gigabytes of data.  I was also allowed to roam around the EU on that data.  Total cost?  60€/month.

Over the years the plan continued to upgrade and/or I would upgrade when I saw new features available.  The plan I ended up abandoning recently had unlimited data and calling to the US and Canada and the EU.  It also meant that whether I was physically in the United States or here in Europe, I really had no worry about getting additional charges, as that roaming was included.  I would only get charged if I made calls to countries not designated in my plan, or traveled to places outside of my plan and wanted data.

Unfortunately, SFR’s data packages in Asia, South America, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand were always prohibitively high, so I ended up getting a local SIM when I traveled to those places and put that SIM inside an unlocked mini wifi device, which then allowed me to tether multiple devices, including my French phone.

Free

Xavier Niel, who has an estimated net worth of $9.3B USD, is the founder of many businesses, including the ISP and mobile phone provider Free.  A year before I arrived in France, in 2012, he created Free Mobile, which was offering unlimited text, voice, and data for 19,99€/month.  Over the years this plan continued to upgrade until it essentially matched my SFR plan.  The highest tier plan didn’t offer unlimited data, but 150 gigs of domestic data and 25 gigs of foreign data per month was going to be more than I would use.  When I discovered this plan I checked with a friend who had Free to ask about the service.  She said that in the city and in the United States it had been fine.  The only times it had been iffy was in some parts of rural France, but that made sense, given that the company wasn’t even ten years old and was still building out its infrastructure.

Still, it seemed to be too good to be true!  In addition to use in France and the EU, the Free plan gave me use of my phone and data plan in Australia and New Zealand, places that I normally spend at least $100-$200/month on data.  But who was I to argue with what would be a 600€ savings a year from what was at that point a 70€/month charge (the price had risen slightly over the years) from SFR?  I checked with SFR to make sure that I didn’t have a contract in place, then picked a day to go to Free.

I brought all the items I needed to open an account at SFR: passport, electricity bill, RIB.  The woman who helped me smiled and said that I wouldn’t need any of that: just my debit card.  The way number portability works in France is simple.  You call 3179 from your phone.  You will hear a recording that reads a number to you.  That is the RIO (releve d’identite operateur).  The recording also states whether your number is free of a contract (and if not, what you will have to pay if you choose to port your number anyway).  You receive a corresponding text message with all that information.

The person helping me at Free typed in my mobile number and then this RIO.  She then asked whether I preferred to be billed on the 1st or the 15th (I chose the latter).  Then she scanned a card that held a nano SIM and handed it to me.  She told me that I would get a text from SFR sometime in the coming days telling me precisely when my number would be ported.

The Switch

Sure enough, about a week later, SFR notified me that my number would be ported on the 26th of the month between 11h-15h00.  I thought that I would see the coverage drop at some point during that window and when it did I swapped SIMs, changed my voicemail recording, and went on with my day.  A couple weeks later, SFR refunded me for the portion of the month that was unused due to my cancellation.

I’ve now had Free for almost two months and heartily endorse it.  I’ve not noticed a change in my service quality but have certainly noticed the change in charges to my bank account each month!  That’s to say nothing of the growing confidence that comes with choosing your service providers based on price and quality, not by default and laziness, which is something that is instinctive in America, but not-so-normal here in France.

My Change of Heart on Picard

In December 2015 I authored a (perhaps too indignant) piece slamming the frozen food chain Picard (and even questioning its raison d’etre).  It’s Spring 2021 and I have to take back at least some of my words due to a series of events that led to my first (and second, third, and fourth) visit to the chain.

Mailers

Picard regularly drops mailers into just about every mailbox in France.  I have had a habit over the years of using any sale flyers, be they from grocery stores or sports shops like Decathlon or Go Sport, as free language learning supplementation.  I will leaf through them, looking for words or phrases I don’t know.  If I see anything interesting, I’ll tear that sheet out and add it to my “look at later” pile.  Then I’ll message my French friends and clarify things (an example from the past: “You guys call any sports shoes baskets, even if they are for tennis?”)  In early March of this year a mailer landed with the title Hello America featuring a number of “limited-time” special items.

Hmm, what do the French consider quintessentially American,” I thought to myself, and started leafing through the mailer with a smile on my face.  The cover had a “Big Fried Chicken Burger” for 4€50 as well as a banana bread cupcake for 2€.  The next page featured something called “American box” which gave you 11 pieces each of mac and cheese bites, mozzarella sticks, and pulled pork bites: 33 in total.  That was 8€95 and thousands of calories.

There were also the 3€50 “Tex-mex burrito” and 2€95 “Hot-dog a la New-Yorkaise.”  They even had bottles of Sam Adams beer for 2€50 each.  But the one that caught my eye was on page 3 of this version: 400g of “American chicken wings” for 5€40.

Chicken

Those who know me well know that I am a great lover of chicken in general and even more so of chicken wings.  It’s traditionally classified in the “American food” category for me (even though people all over the world enjoy chicken wings in their own style and cuisine) which I generally stay away from while here in France to make the visits to my family that much more enjoyable: combining people I miss with food I don’t often eat.  But when this mailer landed in my mailbox it was the middle of Lent and I had been fasting from meat for some weeks.  I also considered that I wasn’t heading back to the States anytime soon and that given that these were frozen wings, they could be broken out on Sundays or after Lent was finished.  “Well, for scientific purposes,” I reasoned, I should really check out these Picard chicken wings and make sure they are good.

I can’t say I eat frozen chicken wings regularly (or ever, that I can remember) but these were really good!  Could Picard have other frozen food that is good?  Again, in the name of science, I decided to find out.

Subsequent Visits

The Paris stores aren’t very large.  You just have large freezers everywhere and some cardboard boxes in the front you can help yourself to if you don’t have one of your own “keep cold” bags.  The other limitation Parisians often deal with is freezer space.  Most of us in the city have smaller fridges with limited freezer space.  I could pick maybe 3-5 items to bring home, assuming that I had an empty freezer at home.

I pretended that I knew what I was doing, but having never really been inside one of these before, I slowly went by every single freezer, making mental notes on what they had.  I even picked up a few things on those subsequent visits, including:

  • a 20-pack of breaded Alaskan pollock filets (really good)
  • some snack-size ham and cheese calzones (decent)
  • the aforementioned “American box” (honestly, not bad but only meant to be consumed in one sitting if you want a food coma: I’ve been away from the States too long to take down so many calories at once so I took it in parts)

In my eighth year in France, I still love to cook multiple times each day (more than ever, actually) and I still find it unacceptable that many people choose to make Picard a regular part of their lives rather than just an occasional one.  But, almost six years after I penned my last article on Picard, I’m happy to admit that I understand a bit better why the French might choose it: there are some quality flash-frozen fruits and vegetables in addition to the pre-made food I treated myself to, all at reasonable prices.  There’s even the bakery section where someone can grab frozen pain au chocolats that they can warm up in their own oven and make-believe they put the effort in to make them.

While it’s not very French of me to admit that I was wrong, perhaps that’s why the Hello America campaign so brilliantly ensnared me.  Bonjour, Picard.  You got me. 🙂

Photo from the Facebook page of Picard.

euros

An Introduction to CAF (Caisses d’Allocations Familiales)

A friend of a friend told me that Shelby would be studying in Paris some time ago and we met and took a walk around Paris and hit it off.  She ended up doing some work for me as well before finishing her studies and heading back to the States.  In my quest to continue to try to fill in some blanks for those coming to France, she’s been kind enough to pen this brief essay on CAF, a benefit available to foreigners.

What is CAF

Caisses d’Allocations Familiales (CAF) is a housing subsidy available for students of French institutions.

How Do You Get It

In order to get CAF, you must be a student living in student housing (e.g. Cite Universite and CROUS), an apartment, a furnished rental, a studio, or a flatshare and have a rental agreement in your name (not a sub-let). For private accommodation, your landlord will need to sign the application, which they might refuse to do given possible tax scrutiny by CAF. During your housing search, make sure the potential landlord will accept CAF. This is especially important if you are looking at a flatshare on Appartager or Le Bon Coin. However, if your apartment is eligible and you have roommates, they can (and should) also apply for CAF. 

Living in Cite Universite or CROUS housing as an international student will make your visa and CAF processes much easier as they are designated specifically for international students and often will help you prepare the forms. Cite Universite even has its own visa and CAF office and can be very helpful if your French isn’t great yet.  

The Application

The website to apply for CAF is entirely in French. Here is a helpful overview of the application process in English for a private apartment. 

In order to apply for CAF you’ll need to have the following documents available: 

  • Photocopy of your passport
  • Photocopy of Birth certificate (and translation- you should have as part of your Student Visa) 
  • French bank account details (RIB) 
  • Document that proves your tenancy (an attestation de herbergement, electric bill, phone bill with your address. A rental agreement will not work)
  • Completed OFII or proof of school enrollment and a copy of your EHIC (European Health Insurance card)

In the application, you will need to have to declare your total income for the last two years and it will be helpful to have your home country tax returns.

How Much Do You Usually Get?

You will start receiving CAF the month after your lease begins (e.g. move in on the 1st August, you’re CAF-eligible 1st September). Importantly, you can get CAF retroactively, so if you don’t finish your application until two or three months after you start your lease, you can still get CAF for those months as long as you start your application the first month. 

Generally, students receive around 200 Euro/Month from CAF, but it scales based on your income (less CAF for higher income). You can also complete this simulation to see how much money you might receive. This money goes directly to your bank account which means you don’t necessarily have to use it for rent. It is likely that you will not receive payments right away as the French bureaucracy needs time to process your paperwork, but you will still receive payments for the entirety of the year, sometimes in the form of a lump sum. 

Shelby completed her Masters of Public Health at the École des hautes études en santé publique in Paris. During her time in Paris she lived in the 18eme, 17eme, 19eme, and 2eme and still, like Stephen, sees very little reason to go to the Left Bank, unless it’s for a party (and even then…). She works now as a public health strategy consultant at a boutique firm in New York City, but is looking forward to taking advantage of the new work from “home” policies created by Covid. She currently lives in the Upper West Side of New York City with her orange cat, Mauvo.

Photo by Christian Dubovan on Unsplash

electricity in France

A French Telemarketing Experience

During my time in France I’ve gotten a few telemarketing calls.  Once, my internet company SFR called offering a slightly better version of the home internet plan I already had.  The call lasted maybe 15 minutes in total and I saved a few euros per month with no real additional work on my part.

Earlier this year, fresh off a score of 94/100 on a DELF exam, I confidently decided to say, “Okay,” when a friendly voice asked in French if I was willing to explore saving some money on my electricity bill.

I’ve written an article before explaining that in France electricity is deregulated and as such there are lots of different providers for electricity and gas.  I didn’t really hunt for the cheapest providers when I moved into my current apartment because I had a lot of other things to attend to.  But now that I had had EDF as my electricity provider since 2018 and knew exactly what I paid each month, I felt in control of the technical aspect of the conversation in addition to feeling there was no way he was going to ask me anything in French I would not understand.

My interlocutor was calm, with the perfect soothing voice all of us want to hear from someone trying to sell us something.  I happen to have smart meters for both electricity and gas so he asked me to read the meter numbers to him, which I did.

In France it’s typical to read sequences of numbers in twos, so you would read the number 273629 as vingt-sept, trente-six, vingt-neuf (I’ve always been grateful that my telephone number has no combinations over 60, as I would have struggled in my earliest days here with the funny way of counting the French use between 70 and 99).  Americans in general just tend to read the numbers in sequence, which the French will still understand, but such an action will immediately spotlight you as a foreigner.

I heard a keyboard pattering away along with the hum of his colleagues.  He gently asked for my patience while he looked some things up.  No doubt, due to deregulation, all of the providers have access to common information.  “How much do you pay now?” he asked.  I told him around 100 euros a month for gas and electricity together.  He asked a bit more about my usage of gas vs. electricity and about the square meterage of the apartment.  A few minutes later he came back with a quote for 25 euros less a month, with that rate guaranteed for at least two years.  300 euros saved in about 30 minutes?  Sure!

The rest was fairly simple.  He sent a set of disclosures as well as a contract for me to sign by email.  He waited on the line while I checked my email and digitally signed off on the documents.  He cheerfully told me everything was taken care of and that they would disconnect with EDF for me.  I wouldn’t have to do anything on that end (this is a key feature for the French: their attitude towards bureaucracy is to stay with bad service because it’s “too hard” to change)  In the meantime, if I wanted to sign on to my account on Engie (my new provider) I could set up autopay and paperless billing, etc.

I don’t think I’ve ever hung up happier from a telephone solicitation call.  Of course I had saved some money, but I had managed to conduct the entire call in French and managed to be understood and to understand, even using some technical language that I had picked up over the years.  And, some weeks later, all happened as promised: my old electricity provider, EDF, was kicked to the curb, and I made my first new payment to Engie via the autopay I had set up right after the original call.

In general in France you have to “opt in” in order to get calls like this, but despite the fact that I studiously avoid opting-in whenever I give my personal information, I still get at least 5-6 calls a year.  Most of the time they will be pretty friendly if you tell them you are not interested.  The worst will be if you tell them you will hear them out, but just at another time.  Then they will just call you forever.  That’s just another reminder that in France, as in life, a firm “no” can save you a lot of time and trouble. 🙂

Five Must-Subscribe Newsletters for Your life in Paris and France

A big part of how I keep up with all the latest developments in my adopted country is, of course, living here.  I organize almost a dozen monthly business and social events and am always learning how to integrate more deeply into my life here.  I suspect I’ll always be learning, even as the end of my sixth year in France approaches.

But another part of how I learn about France in general and Paris in particular is through great email newsletters.  Now, I am a person who hits “unsubscribe” pretty regularly, so I’m not idly sending you these recommendations.  These are newsletters I read regularly and tell people about who want consistent sources of valuable information.  I don’t think you’ll be unsubscribing to any of them soon, and like me, you’ll probably tell others about them.

Jean Taquet

I’ve mentioned his name numerous times on this site and he’s permanently featured in my sidebar.  Jean has been a mentor and friend in my immigration journey and I would not be here without him.  But before I ever met him in person I started reading his newsletter about a year after I arrived.  It comes out once a month and is primarily oriented to those who are seeking to immigrate or maintain a life in France, but is also full of insights into how the French think, work, and relax and is almost always headlined by a musical song Jean uses as his muse for that particular issue.  You can find many archives as well as subscribe to the newsletter by going to his website.

Heather Stimmler

Heather runs the very well-known (but now ironically named) Secrets of Paris newsletter.  I say ironically because it’s no secret to those in the know that Heather saves us a lot of time.  She keeps up on the latest cultural news, but also the “oh this just opened” happenings.  A perfect example?  The newly opened “Liberation of Paris” Museum, which she visited, gave useful tips for, and documented for us here.  You can subscribe to her newsletter and get these and other treasures each month.

Adrian Leeds

If Jean Taquet shares some of his personal life, and Heather Stimmler a few more details, Adrian Leeds shares everything with you.  Witness this recent article in which she shares what a mess her daughter left in her apartment while Adrian was away for part of the summer.  It’s definitely an up-close-and-personal narrative, unlike my first two recommendations, but that doesn’t make it less valuable.  Adrian’s style is not for everyone, but when it comes to property and property trends in Paris, she’s really made a name for herself and has been very helpful in helping me understand leases, rights, and the rental market here in Paris.  I told her the last time we corresponded that the best piece she shared with us last year was a précis of an insightful presentation she was asked to give to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the subject of making Americans feel more welcome at the 2024 Olympics.  Adrian has not one, but three newsletters, and you can find them on her home page under “publications.”

Parisian Fields

As someone who will often mention “architecture” as one of the reasons I love living here (something at least partially attributable to studying abroad in Rome as an undergrad), Parisian Fields is an absolute jewel of leisurely long form writing.  It features photos and commentary from Philippa Campsie, and is a no-holds-barred deep dive into urban design, history, and life here and now in Paris.  Check out this recent article which talks all about the different styles of benches we have in the city and how they evolved in relation to gardens in France.  Or how about this one, which as you can tell by its title, sheds no tears about the loss of the Trocadero Palace many years ago.  She’s only recently back after a hiatus from blogging, so become a (free) subscriber and encourage her to keep at it!

The Local

I saved The Local for last because I thought…doesn’t everyone know about The Local?  They do an excellent job of promoting their pieces through social media, but in case you don’t know, they also have a newsletter.  The Local is all about providing “on the ground” news and information by scanning the French magazines and newspapers and providing what is relevant to English speakers who cannot easily do the same, be it through time or language barriers.  Subscribe to their newsletter here.

Any favorites of yours that should have made this list?  Please share in the comments!

Photo courtesy of Webaroo

line at the Elysee

Journees de Patrimoine (Skip the Elysee)

Around this time last year I made plans with two friends to visit the Elysee Palace.  Once a year, in September, the French celebrate Heritage Days (les Journees de Patrimoine) and many places are open to the public which are not normally so, including the President’s residence, the Elysee.  While we thought we would “beat the crowd” by getting in line at 7am, two hours before they started letting people in, many, many other people thought similarly and we were in a very long line even though it was still dark when we found the line of people snaking through the edges of the Champs-Elysees, near the American Embassy.

Heritage Days started as a French idea, in 1984.  The Ministry of Culture sponsored something called “La Journee Portes Ourvertes” and it was so successful that other countries started their own versions.  The Netherlands, Sweden, Ireland, Belgium, and Scotland all held their own events until in 1991 the Council of Europe created an EU-wide “European Heritage Days” which happen the second weekend of September each year.

I had just by chance been out of Paris the past couple years on those dates so last year I decided to seize my chance and asked some of my French friends if they had tried to go to the Elysee before and most had not, had never been, actually, but one who had told me to get there at least two hours early.  “It’s worth it,” she nodded.  I took her advice, and yet it was six hours before I stepped foot inside the former royal residence.

Yeah, six hours.  There were some security precautions that had been put in place since my friend had visited, including body pat-downs and as such the wait was truly mind-bending.  In fact, I would say that my main cultural experience was witnessing so many French wait for so many hours.  It was a miracle!

All joking aside, I say skip the Elysee because there are so many other places you can go where the crowd won’t be as absurd and the wait won’t be so long.  Why use the whole day for one building?  When you do finally get into the Palace you can stop and linger without too much harrying from the staff, but to be honest, it’s not a very large or impressive house, by Head of State standards, though perhaps that’s the point of the “one of us” stances of the 3rd-5th Republics.  Need ideas?  Click here to be dazzled.  When making your plans, try not to buzz all over town, but rather stay in one or two adjacent arrondissements.  You’ll enjoy yourself more and what’s the rush?  You live here now, so there’s always next year to hear that concert, take that tour, or see the Hotel de Salm (one of my targets for next year, as I’m out of town for this year’s festivities).

The photo was taken 2/3 of the way through our six hour vigil.

No, I Don’t Have a French Driver’s License (And Probably Never Shall)

I hadn’t written about this before, but a number of people have emailed me about it more recently and I also just finished a book called French License by Joe Start which chronicles just how challenging it can be to get one of these.

So, why haven’t I written about it?

I’m writing this article while visiting Singapore, the city-state I was born into and where my mother’s entire side of the family lives.  It has a world-class public transportation system and I was taking the metro (known here as the MRT) by myself as early as six years old.

I love living in a city where not only do I not need a car, but even the costs of owning a car are a deterrent to ownership.  Apart from purchasing, there’s a flurry of licensing fees and taxes that go along with standard car costs, not to mention parking fees and gasoline that costs at least double what it does in America.  Did I mention the ticket-happy Parisian meter maids?

In the five years I’ve lived in France I’ve driven precisely 28 days, on vacations in Bordeaux, Provence, and the Basque country, as well as a work trip in Brittany.  These are all places you cannot truly get around without a personal vehicle.  Each time I drove I rented a vehicle using my American license.  In fact, the one time I got pulled over in France (I stupidly overtook a cop in a small town – it didn’t look like a cop car) I decided to pull the “dumb foreigner” act and spoke heavily-accented American English, handing over a US license, all while looking suitably scared, penitent, and compliant.  They had no wish to do paperwork as they thought I would probably never pay the fine anyway, and there doesn’t seem to be a mechanism to chase down foreigners (as they imagined I was).  I promised to pay more attention to the signs and slowly drove off with a smile and a wave.  Driving a vehicle without a French license is letter of the law illegal, as I am a resident of France past my one year grace period, but my insouciant attitude on the matter confirms that indeed, I have adopted the French spirit entirely. 🙂

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, But…

So assuming that, like me, you love that hole in your budget where auto expenditures used to go, but are constrained by your circumstances and hence need a car and requisite license of your own, what are your choices?

The easy way

Trade in your US license during your first year in France.  The following states offer a straight swap of your license for a French one: Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.  If getting a driver’s license in France had been a priority in my first year I would have swapped my Kansas license then and then did what I advise my visa consulting clients to do, report their US license as lost (and it honestly was – lost to the hands of the French government) and get a new one.  Two licenses for the price of two.

The hard way

It’s too depressing to relate, and why bother when the US government has a handy PDF that you can peruse at your leisure?  If you want to get more depressed, read the book I referenced above.  The work I’ve done at the prefecture for French residency seems to pale in comparison to the work for a license, and given that 1/3 of the French nation doesn’t have a license, the written and practical portions, as well as the cost of the schools themselves, drive most people off from the process entirely, and keep in mind that these are native speakers who play games like Mille Bornes from their youth and have insight into just how arcane and impossible the French licensing process can be.

But why be depressed at all?  France’s infrastructure is advanced enough for you not to have to have a private car, and with services like BlaBlaCar more closely connecting us all the time, you won’t need to.  In a driverless future, no one will need driver’s licenses, and that future will come to France, albeit slowly, I’m sure.

Osteo & Chiro in France

“We’re not covered by the French insurance system.”

I was only slightly surprised when my osteopath said this to me at the end of our visit.  As someone who has spent most of his life outside of a single-payer healthcare system, and has confessed that he only goes to the doctor occasionally, I expect to always pay a little something when I have medical needs in France.

Part of my lower spine had been troubling me for several weeks and my exercise regimen wasn’t helping it to heal – but stopping exercise, even for just a couple weeks, was not an option I was willing to consider.  In a past life, upon feeling this way, I would have immediately gone to my chiropractor in the US.  Those visits were covered by my US insurance of the time.  But I never had insurance in a post-Obamacare America.  I left the US in 2013, before the changes to the insurance system began, and as such, have no idea whether chiropractic care is still covered in the way it might have been back then.  But whatever might be the policies of the US insurance companies, it seemed that chiropractors really didn’t have a presence in France in general, and in Paris in particular, and so I made an appointment with “the next best thing,” an osteopath.

What’s the difference?

The osteopath who saw me took a few minutes to quickly parse the two disciplines.  “It’s a vast oversimplification, but you might say that chiros are more exclusively spinally focused, whereas in addition to the spine we are concerned with respiratory and digestive issues.  We also won’t see our patients as frequently.”  She went on to tell me that the founder of chiropractic was actually a student of the founder of osteopathy for a short 6 weeks.  However divergent their paths are now, both disciplines are a reaction to “traditional” treatments of the time in which they were invented, at the end of the 1800s.

In the end, because of my travel schedule last month, I double-dipped.  The osteopath I saw in Paris made some helpful adjustments just 2 days before a trip I made stateside, and while I was in America I had 4 adjustments over a 2 week period with a chiropractor, including some time on a traction table.  On all these visits on both sides of the Atlantic I paid cash (70€ for my French visit, and $50USD for each of my American visits), as I have no US insurance, and as I said, French insurance does not cover osteopathy.  But, some mutuelle plans do.  Would I finally be motivated to get one of those “top up” plans that the French are so attached to?  Not yet.  But seeing both the osteo and chiro helped tremendously, and my back feels a lot better now.  I also managed to learn more about a field I didn’t know about and what the French system will pay for.  So, the pain was worth it, if only to remind me to be grateful that I live in a country in which I can easily see a doctor when I have a problem, and not pay an exorbitant amount to do so.