Three Years On, Part III: Cost of Living

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 third in a series of four.  You can find the first one here and the second one here.

People are always a bit shocked when I say it’s “not that expensive” to live here.  I say that because I am thinking of places like NYC, SF, Tokyo, Hong Kong, London, etc. where it really is shockingly expensive to live.  Paris isn’t, and rather than just tell you my “feelings” I have put together a spreadsheet for you based on my basic expenses across the last 3 years (I have not included weekend trips/vacations because that really varies per person).

Category Year 1 (2014) Years 2-3 (2015-2016) Comments
Rent 8 m^2, 650€/mo 39 m^2, 1350€/mo both apartments furnished
Location 17eme 2eme I don’t see the point of living in the suburbs; Paris is worth paying for.
Taxe d’habitation n/a 80€/mo once you switch to a working visa you are fully responsible for this
Utilities & internet 40€/mo 80€/mo sometimes these are included
Food 100€/mo 200€/mo in Year 1 that was 90% canned, whereas now it’s 100% fresh
Cellphone 70€/mo 70€/mo I’ve never skimped on this because I make a lot of calls to the US and travel in Europe a lot. This package comes with unlimited calls to the USA and 20 gigs of data which I can use anywhere in Europe AND the USA.
Health Insurance 35€/mo 70€/mo I now participate in the French Health care system so those payments are quite a bit more than my “foreigner’s insurance” (roughly double) but it means I am fully covered.
Renter’s Insurance 20€/mo 22€/mo some landlords don’t require this, but the prefecture almost always does.
Metro 25€/mo 75€/mo In my first year I just tried to make do with the occasional ticket purchase, but it’s just too much nuisance. I don’t use the metro all the time, but the annual pass gives me access to all of Ile de France for free on the weekends
Legal and Accounting 100€/mo 100€/mo Unless you possess a very special set of skills you will need help filing your French tax return as well as dealing with specific questions on your dossier for the prefecture
Etc 100€/mo 200€/mo this is for haircuts or clothing or spending money and varies per person.   I’m a single male in my 30s with strong minimalist tendencies, so keep that in mind.
Monthly Totals 1140€/mo 2197€/mo you can see that as a visitor, it’s not a big burden if you’re willing to sacrifice (e.g. canned food), but when you’ve decided to settle in here, it’s going to cost a lot more.
Annual Totals 13680€/year 26364€/year The French government will require access to more than 13k€ per year for the long term stay visa. I’m just pointing out you won’t actually need more.

What are some expenses you didn’t plan for?  Feel free to share in the comments below.

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.”

August in France

It is quiet.  Wonderfully quiet.  Not just in Paris but everywhere you go in France.  On July 15th, after some national holiday that will go unnamed, the French decide that it’s been a solid 10.5 months of work, and that it’s close enough to 12 to round up and call it a year.  They depart in all directions, with a plan to return on or around September 1st.

Effectively this means you’re on your own if you choose to stay in your particular part of France.  90% of the local restaurants and shops close, and here in Paris, it’s the tourists who now outnumber the locals.  Everything feels slower because everything is slower.  Normally I would say this is in part due to the weather, but given the fluctuations of the last six months, I’m uncertain as to whether there is a correlation any longer between the season of the year and the expected climate.

My second card

The last card said “Visitor” and specifically prohibited working.  This one recognized my new status and interestingly was dated from the date of my follow-up visit to the Prefecture in April, not the date I received my first recipisse, in January.  This permanently shifts my renewal date to April, which is nice as I can now avoid the end of the year congestion that I have grown used to.  You’ll also see a new permanent entrance to the Prefecture at Cite:


IMG_2509

It ostensibly provides more safety via a double-doored security controlled entrance.  It’s just to the right, about 50 meters from the entrance you are used to.

IMG_2499

No, I’m not mad, bro.

Interestingly, the lady who issued me my carte took about five minutes (which felt longer due too the dread) rechecking all the paperwork from the previous two visits.  I remained stoic and impassive, and I kept telling myself, “Don’t sweat it, you’ve got everything in order.”  Sure enough, she stamped and signed all that was needed and that was “case closed.”

Please don’t make too much of my facial expression.  You’re specifically prohibited from smiling in official French photos. 🙂

Grand Train

Last weekend I took one of my meetup groups to Grand Train.  It’s part of an 8-year redevelopment project and rather than just have a boring old construction site, some smarties got together and created essentially a pop-up party that reminded me of the gently convivial atmospheres of the ruin pubs of Budapest.

Entrance is free and in addition to numerous train exhibits there are pop-up food shacks and indoor and outdoor seating galore.  It runs through October and you would do well to get in early (around 15h-17h) and leave early (before 22h) as it starts to get very crowded at that point.

IMG_2744

Outdoor Film Festival is back on…but not outdoors

La Villette, on the edges of the 19th, usually plays host to an outdoor film festival all summer long.  However, following the attacks in Nice, the Mairie de Paris laid down specific security expectations for outdoor events and the film festival couldn’t comply and it was tentatively suspended “until further notice.”  After a couple weeks of hand-wringing it was decided not to waste all the planning that had gone into selecting the films and organizing showing dates and the festival has been moved indoors to the Grand Halle.  If you want to join our Film and Supper Club we are going to watch Akira Kurosawa’s Ran next week.

Happy to be here

Despite this being my third year in France, this is my first full August in Paris, as the last two summers I was working in Switzerland.  Alas, they passed a law that went into effect earlier this year that restricted the number of non-EU persons that could work on temporary summer contracts, and my wings were clipped.  I was certainly down the first week I got the news, back in March, but the summer has proved what I suspected to be true back then: more opportunities would arise while I was in Paris, not in Switzerland, during July and August, and I would have more of a chance to explore parts of France that I have not before.  There are still two weeks to go before the Rentreé and I’m very glad to have these quiet summer days pretty much to myself (or to accompany friends who have never had Five Guys to taste their first one).

Losing at Home

My heart sank.  In the fan zone at the Eiffel Tower, tucked away behind one of the smaller screens I was standing in front of, the small group of Portuguese near us lost their minds in celebration.  I hadn’t ever been here before – in France, watching the National Team play in a Final – but I’d watched plenty of football, and given how the game had gone, I knew this was probably it.

* * *

The police were dressed in riot gear and were prepared for all manner of shenanigans.  What they got instead was a quietly compliant group of Parisians, eager to get home to perhaps more easily hide their disappointment.  As I got off at Opéra to change to Line 3, I observed a girl in her mid-20s quietly crying, the tears muddling the tricolor she had proudly painted on her cheeks that afternoon.

* * *

I do love football, especially the spectacle of an international tournament, but travel kept me out of France during most of the group stage play, though it did allow me to watch with thousands of Viennese as their national team played Portugal, or with the Swiss who live in Liechtenstein as they played Romania.  I watched the two semifinals on my street here in the 2nd arrondissement and while I was the only one in the entire bar watching Wales and Portugal, I had to make reservations and arrive an hour before the match to hold on to those seats before the France-Germany game, which was a treat to watch.  Further down the street is an axis where three sports bars are nearby and many people danced in the street to celebrate the heroic efforts of the French team that night.  The whole city was buoyed by it.

This morning its another Monday in what has been a tough 12 months for the French, and yet I sense resolve so often attributed to the British and known in their “keep calm and carry on” mantra.  Disappointment is part of football, but it’s part of life too – and those of us who know football know that Portugal was defeated at home in the Finals of Euro 2004 by the Greeks.  They know what happened last night because they were on the losing end of such a situation once.  And they came back to fight another day and won their first European Championship.

* * *

More than anything in these days of political pygmies, as we see Australia divided by a General Election, a narrow Brexit, and an America eager to shoot itself to death, we can enjoy a simple thing like a football tournament, that brings together people from 24 different countries, to cheer, laugh, learn, and cry.  Among much disappointment, in football and otherwise, there are always opportunities to learn and grow.  It remains for us to take them.

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.

The kind of afternoon you want to lose

Matt was standing outside – about to message me – but I spotted him through the window.  I was working at Le Poncelet, my favorite cafe in the 17th, the arrondissement I spent my first year in Paris in.  I waved him in.

Le Poncelet for me is a perfect modern Parisian cafe.  It has trouble-free wifi, a great lunchtime special, usually around 12€ (and is sold out of by 13h00), and an unhurried manner that never makes me feel guilty when I sit and work there for hours on end.

Matt and I met for coffee at 10h00.  At 11h45 he signaled for another coffee and Anne-Sophie (one of the four waitstaff, who, in addition to the owner, I’ve come to know by name) politely told him in French that they were going to need our table for lunch.  Understandable: Paris cafes are a sort of no-go zone for the casual coffee drinker between the hours of 11h30-13h30 for the simple reason that the cafe wants to maximize dining revenue by using every available table.  You can always sit or stand at the bar during this time period – the prices are cheaper anyway – remember that an espresso at the bar might cost you 1€ whereas the exact same one sitting down might run you 2€.

Matt and I had separate plans to go elsewhere and simply work digitally after our coffee.  I needed to continue to move closer to the Louvre, as I was giving 4 guests a private tour there that night.  We were not far from the Champs and I picked a zany and open Starbucks location there where we might chat in peace and not be pressured into more coffee.

I ordered an Uber for us.  It came 2 minutes later.  I raved about how great the service is in Paris, and he reflected that his terrible experiences on Uber in our city may have been a result of always needing to order a van (he is married with three daughters).

We kept chatting at our new location – where we watched a professional panhandler do laps among the crowd, all with a fake crutch.  He occasionally helped himself to abandoned muffins and juice.  Finally a Starbucks employee chased him out.

Matt and I were continuing our conversation – we had long ago left visas and expat discussion, which was probably the original premise of the coffee (I love to meet my readers in person).  We were now into the area of monarchy (I’m a royalist) vs. anarchy (Matt is an anarchist) and I was making the case that both of these systems depended heavily on personal responsibility.

We had almost finished solving the problems of the world when I suggested we move one more time.  Again to a Starbucks (I’ve explained before how useful they are as lily pads), but this time close to the central tourism office near the Garnier Opera so I could buy the Louvre tickets I would need for my guests.

We commandeered two seats upstairs (where we had this view), and got to work.  Matt got the coffee, as I had gotten another Uber to catapult us here.

Ultimately, I wish that kind of luxury that Matt and I had that afternoon for all of you.  Yes, we had work to do, but, yes, it could wait.  We were having that kind of conversation – the kind that many of us associate with a fireplace or a holiday or preceded by a number of adult beverages.  We were stone cold sober, in the middle of a beautiful Parisian afternoon.  We were Americans far from our old homes, who had intentionally created lifestyles that meant we could have this kind of rich and thoughtful conversation on a random weekday – a true sharing of ideas, not in which either of us attempted to “convert” the other on particular issues but in which we basked in the challenge of seeing things from another point of view.

When was the last time you had that kind of conversation?  I reckon you’re overdue.

Image from pixabay.com

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.” 🙂