bikes in Paris

How Paris Quietly Became a Bike City

When I moved to Paris in 2013 one of the first things I did was obtain a Navigo card and after a couple months of buying monthly passes manually via machines I switched to an annual pass and have not had to think about topping up again.  The metro was the way I moved about Paris.

But after getting to know the Metro fairly well you realize that it’s often just as easy to walk to a certain location and you start making choices about what form of transportation makes the most sense given the weather, your mood, what you’re carrying, and what else you still need to accomplish.  Velib was already around when I arrived in 2013 and the shared bike boom followed by the rise in trottinette usage meant that options for transport have only multiplied since then.  The one form of transport that has received an explosive infusion of support from local government is bicycles.

Infrastructure

Now that bike lanes are so well-established in Paris, I wonder how so many of us were brave enough to ride with vehicle traffic for many years prior.  Cars and their drivers, convinced that everyone but them were simply “intruding” on their entitled space, didn’t make life easy for those of us on bicycles, but we figured that was simply the way it would be.  I mean, this wasn’t Amsterdam after all.  But little did most of us know that the Dutch model was exactly what Mayor Anne Hidalgo had in mind to transform Paris from the ground-up.

Plan Velo

Back in 2015, a year after Hidalgo’s first term began, the city started a project called Plan Velo.  This was a big play to make it significantly easier for bicyclists to navigate the city by creating north-south and east-west reseaus express velos (REVes), or “bike express lanes.”  Similar to what you are going to see on almost every street in the Netherlands, this is a protected bike lane that not only provides bidirectional traffic but also allows bikes to continue moving when their right-of-way is not impeded by traffic.  If you haven’t ridden in one of these before, you can’t possibly know how transformative it is.  It changes the experience of bicycling in the city from one analogous to driving a car, i.e. having to always pay attention while being subject to a lot of traffic and stoplights, to one of breezy insouciance: these north-south and east-west corridors make point-to-point travel significantly faster, safer, and more pleasant.

Plan Velo has paid off in numerous ways, not least of which was featuring as the centerpiece of Hidalgo’s successful re-election bid as Mayor.  Paris jumped up into the top ten of bicycle-friendly cities in the world during her first term.  The infrastructure in place during the late 2019 transportation strike also allowed for an overnight 54% jump in bicycle use among Parisians, many of whom did not go back to the Metro even after the strike ceased.

Hidalgo also seized on Danton’s (in)famous notion of audace during the early days of Covid-19 and took back Rue de Rivoli, the longest street in Paris, and limited it to one lane for buses and taxis.  She also created a number of “coronapistes” which created new protected bike lanes via removable plastic cones.  The reasoning given was that fewer cars were on the road because of lockdown and some people weren’t comfortable traveling in the confined spaces of the Metro.  But, just as with the accompanying “extended terrasse” permissions given to the restaurants, rights ceded were not going to simply be given back, and now Plan Velo 2 has arrived.

Plan Velo, Acte 2

Part of the infrastructure changes needed to pérennisée both the so-called coronapistes and the extended restaurant outdoor terraces was removal of the largest enemy of vibrant life in any city: cars.  Cars need a “home” in the form of parking places and 70% of the existing on-street parking spots designated for cars are being removed.

Hidalgo is running for President on the slimmest of chances and Plan Velo Acte 2, released last month (two days before her announcement to run for President), has to be seen as part of her case for progressive measures to form economic and social life at a granular level.  The benefit is enormous for those of us who live in the city (Paris as 100% cyclable by 2026, it promises), but it’s doubtful that people outside of Paris really care, as life in the French countryside, like life almost everywhere in America, is unimaginable without cars.  Indeed, such denizens would snort at her proposed 2030 gas-powered car ban, which seems quite reasonable to those of us who live in the capital, but might seem very odd to those who don’t.

That said, this plan involves investing 250M euros to make the entire city bikeable by adding another 180km of dedicated two-way cycling paths in addition to making permanent the 52km Hidalgo and her team snuck in via the coronapistes last year (to put that in perspective, at the moment we already have more than 1,000 km of bike paths, quite a few snaking into the suburbs).  There’s also budget for more passenger and cargo bike parking spots and cleaning and trash removal for cycling paths.

In addition there will be programs to teach children to ride bikes in schools, repair workshops in each arrondissement, and a cycling tourism push.

Mindset Shift

But having the infrastructure in place is only one part of the problem.  The second is getting Parisians to realize they are now living in a bike city and to make the changes in their behavior necessary.

In my early years of living in Europe I often said that the Netherlands was the only place in the world in which I was terrified of bikes.  The “ding ding” I heard struck fear into my heart as I wondered if I was standing in the wrong place, completely oblivious to my pending death at the hands of some kind person mounted on one of the country’s 23M bikes who would mutter “wat jammer” before moving my body to the side of the road and making a call to the relevant authorities to take care of my remains.

Often I was standing “in the wrong place” and quickly moved to avoid being mowed down.  Sometimes I wasn’t and it was someone else who was needing to be “dinged.”  The reason I was “terrified of bikes” in the Netherlands was because I didn’t have the right mindset.  After my first visit to what the French call the “low country” I flicked on a mental orange switch every time I came to the country (more than half a dozen times since 2014) that I was in a place where bikes, not cars, ruled.  I even, like a new car driver, ventured into the bike lanes on a borrowed bicycle and realized just how different the bicycling experience was when it was treated as a legitimate source of transportation.

Now that 95% of my trips in the city are on a bicycle (which Anne Hidalgo and her team helped pay for) I’m very aware that there are many Parisians who continue to remain as I was on my first trip to the Netherlands and thus have failed to install that mental switch.  This leads to near-misses with pedestrians including one time that I braked hard enough to simply gently bump into an instantly apologetic female pedestrian.

The lack of mindset shift is the same for Parisian bicyclists.  Many of them, like me, are new and don’t even use the proper hand signals for turning, thinking that a left turn means just putting your left hand out the way you do with your right hand to indicate a right hand turn, or never thinking to signal for an unexpected stop.

This all leads to a sometimes dangerous mix of cars, pedestrians, and cyclists who are getting used to a new way of living with each other which leads to situations like the one well-captured in the tweet below at Bastille.

One of the reasons that bicycling is so safe in the Netherlands is that every single car driver is a bicyclist as well.  That leads to an awareness that is now normative in the entire country.

While I don’t expect the unbelievable growth in bicycles here in the capital to lead to changes everywhere in France, it’s clear to me that cities that protect bicycles necessarily change the mindsets of the pedestrians and the car drivers.  It only takes one near miss by a careless pedestrian in the bike lane to suddenly render visible to that pedestrian what was previously an “invisible” bike lane.

It’s also clear that whatever will happen to her presidential ambitions, Hidalgo’s mayoral legacy is assured, if only for the transformation she has achieved for bicycles in the City of Light, a transformation that she persevered in against the noisy protests of car owners and their lobbyists, who seem to have forgotten that Paris and the rest of the world managed to exist, and exist quite well, thank you very much, without personal cars, for centuries.  For her work on this issue, Hidalgo deserves every Parisian’s gratitude.

This change to our city will take time.  In the meantime I’m enjoying all the benefits that come with riding a bicycle in Paris: a different perspective, speed of transportation (I regularly beat friends who take the Metro and leave at the same time I do for a shared destination), and thanks to the aforementioned Plans Velos, more protected infrastructure.

Ding ding.

Photo by Svetlana Gumerova on Unsplash

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This article also appeared on Medium.

scooters in Paris

The Trottinette Life in Paris

I first looked into a trottinette (what the French call the platform-with-wheels-and-a-stick electric scooters) in January 2020, in the throes of yet another transportation strike (oh, for those good old days when strikes were our big problems!).  I wasn’t alone.  Many people were tired of the CGT and the disruptions and as such a first big move in Paris towards using bicycles and trottinettes began.  With many people choosing these new options, the shared biking system (Velib) and the various shared scooters (Lime, Dott, etc.) were strained.  They simply couldn’t keep up with the new demand and those who were trying to get away from the frustrations of the transportation strike didn’t want to leap into another frustrating situation (no bikes or scooters available) and so they opted to buy their own bikes and scooters.

It was sometime in Spring 2020 when I bought what is the most popular model of trottinette in Paris, the Xiaomi Pro.  While this model is inexpensive (new for about 400€, used for around half that) the key feature that has made many go for it is its foldability.  This means that users can take them on the metro with them, an option not available to most on bikes, as the majority of Parisian bicyclists do not have the folding Brompton ones.

This form of “multimodal” transport, in which someone walks, takes a metro/bus, then finishes the “last mile” of the journey on a trottinette, is a dream of transportation experts.  However, some studies point out (rightfully) that those riding trottinettes are not people who would otherwise have driven cars.  They are usually pedestrians who don’t want to walk anymore or just want to get somewhere faster.  There’s nothing wrong with that, and it is good to pull some pedestrians out and put them into the ever-expanding bike lane system in Paris.  But it cannot be argued that trottinettes do anything to ease vehicle congestion in the city.

Not Such a Deal

The thing is, the cobbled streets of Paris are tough on the small-wheeled trottinettes.  And the Xiaomi Pro, as I found out, is not the most stable and strong scooter platform you can buy.  So I’ve had numerous repairs to pay for in the last 18 months.

The first was a new tire tube after some stray glass had flattened the existing one.  Broken glass is an issue that you have to deal with even as a pedestrian, but the consequences are more significant for those who are rolling along on rubber tires.  When I got a second flat, the repairman suggested a tubeless tire.  “What, a tire that can’t deflate?  What’s the catch?”  The smoothness of the ride.  By having a very hard, reinforced tire that doesn’t inflate (or deflate) and can take as many nails or pieces of glass you throw at it, you necessarily have a ride that now treats you to every bump and curve of the road.  This isn’t a problem when you’re on a flat, well-paved, perfect road.  Those are not the majority of the roads in Paris, particularly in the center, though the bike lanes which I alluded to above very often are and that network seems to get bigger every single day.

I had only gotten a tubeless tire on the back tire and the ride still felt pretty smooth in general, but after my third flat, I had enough and made the front tire tubeless as well.  Cost of two tubeless tires and the original flat + installation = 225€, which is more than I had paid for my used trottinette (150€), but no matter, I thought.  No more flats (just intolerably bumpy rides when you hit cobbles).

But there were other costs.  A small part in the front broke (59€) as did another piece (59€) and at one point I had to get the battery replaced (200€).

This is when I decided to get my electric bike: I was motivated by the subsidies on offer, but I also liked the idea of being outside in Paris without a mask (this was permitted to anyone on a bike during the old days of an external mask mandate).  My trottinette, which had accompanied me in all sorts of weather and traffic situations, and up and down countless metro stations, is soon to go on Le Bon Coin (the French Craigslist) and hopefully give someone else some good use, as I’m done with the money pit the Xiaomi platform became.  Once you’ve gotten used to riding your bike in Paris, you can go as fast as these scooters and get exercise your body needs too.

Alternatives

You could choose to get an unlock pass for one of the floating shared trottinettes.  I periodically get a pass for the Dott platform (you can use this code to try it and get two free rides for yourself) which is around 5€ and that gives you unlimited free “unlocks” for 90 days.  The cost of a ride is usually a 1€ unlock fee and then 20 cents for each minute you are on the trottinette.  I am now very rarely out in Paris without my bicycle but if I do need to use one of these Dott scooters I’m usually on for under ten minutes, which means 2€ for the ride, and even three times a week, every week, that would be 24€/month or 288€/year.  That’s definitely the route I would recommend for the more casual user.  While the theory of “having your own” trottinette in Paris is plausible, much depends on the quality of the platform you choose, and by delaying an immediate purchase you can give yourself time to shop around and figure out what you like, using a shared system in the meantime.

If you are committed to buying your own, knowing what I know now, I would recommend a brand new Wegoboard trottinette.  I’ve been to their store in the 11th a couple times and the scooters are made in France, are much sturdier and stabler than the Xiaomi, and come with a two-year guarantee.  If you’re stuck with a Xiaomi, the fastest/best repairs are going to be up in the 18th at Smartinette.

Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash

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Getting Pickpocketed

So I’ve been pickpocketed three times in seven years that I’ve been in Paris.  Once in 2015 and twice in the last quarter of 2019, when pickpocketing was at an all-time high in the city.  Nothing irreplaceable was taken; it was more a chance to learn weaknesses and correct behavior.

The Wallet

I was helping a friend get to Gare du Nord to catch a train.  We got onto line 4 at the Cité metro stop and just before the door closed we felt a crush of people get onto the carriage.  I felt a strong hand at my back as we felt people try to squeeze in, which was probably all that was necessary to distract me from a hand reaching into the inside left pocket of my overcoat, where my wallet was.  I didn’t notice until Gare du Nord, which of course was far too late to do anything about it.

My pulse quickened; chemicals swam into my bloodstream to “help” my body cope with panic.  I tried to clear my head and quickly used my phone to cancel credit cards that I remembered were inside (including one that wasn’t inside!).  I didn’t think there was anything that could really be done – so many wallets get lifted in any given day in a big city, not just in Paris – but there was one crucial card in that wallet whose loss I would have to document for the French authorities: my four year carte de sejour.

I had learned this some years back when I had left my wallet on an airplane, again, with a carte de sejour inside.  You have to file a police report to certify the “missing” status of the card.  Having that report allows you to get a new card.  You can’t start the process of replacing a missing carte de sejour unless you’ve filed a police report.  The sooner the better.

I was already in Gare du Nord, so I made my way down to the lower level branch police station that I knew was inside the station.  I briefly explained to the cop at the front desk what had happened.  He told me to take a seat and that it would probably be an hour (which in French bureaucratic speak means at least one hour).  The effects of the “panic chemicals,” cortisol and adrenaline, were ebbing away, and I smiled, nodded, sat down, and pulled a book out my bag (always have a book to read when you’re walking around in Paris).

I had started to feel a bit sorry for myself when a girl in her early 20s came into the station escorted by a couple officers.  One of them walked up to the front desk clerk and quietly said a few words.  The front desk clerk grimly nodded and the other officer walked the girl over towards me and put her into the seat next to me. He then said they would take her statement shortly.

The girl was shaken, and had either just been crying or was holding back tears.  I realized that however “poorly” my day was going, that others were having worse days, and I abruptly stopped feeling sorry for myself.

About an hour later, I was asked to come into the office and explain what had been lost.  The officer was very efficient and in about 15 minutes I was out of there with two crucial documents: the one page police report with an inventory of all that had been in my wallet, signed by me and sealed by the attending officer, and a recipisse that the declaration had been filed, again signed by me and sealed by the attending officer.

I could have used this to go in and get a recipisse, which would have given me “legal ID.”  But something had changed in the years since I had first started getting those coveted thick plastic ID cards: I had realized I didn’t really need them for daily life in France.  If I needed to rent a car, I would give the rental agency my US driver’s license.  If I needed to travel, I would use my US passport.  I might occasionally present the carte de sejour (CDS) if I needed to pick up a package, but I could just as easily bring my passport as well.  The cost of a replacement card is the exact same as the cost of the original card, and a part of my personality which has served me very well in past years, a character I call “frugal Stephen,” objected to the idea of paying for a new card with fewer than 24 months left.  “Why not just try to get by without one?”

Why not indeed?  I hadn’t foreseen that there might have been some sort of global crisis that would make the actual hard plastic card very important indeed.  More on that another time.

The iPhone

I am not the guy who gets the new flashy gadget.  I’ll gently use something until it gives up on me.  Case in point, Apple was offering double trade-in value on what was then my four year-old iPhone 6 Plus.  Because of software upgrades (which would lead to a class action lawsuit some years later, which would lead to me also getting a payout) the phone simply couldn’t perform anymore and crashed all the time.  I took the double trade-in value and got a shiny new iPhone XS.  The phone was dreamy in comparison to my faithful old 6 Plus.  Until it got stolen a couple months later.

I’ve mentally tracked down the 60 likeliest seconds in which it happened.  I have a habit of keeping my hand in my coat pockets during the winter season, and usually have my phone in one of those pockets.  The last time I remember using the phone was to show a friend of mine a funny meme.  We were on Line 2 and changed at Jaures for the line in my neighborhood, 7bis.  Somewhere between changing from those lines is when I got pickpocketed.

The thing is I offer ready advice all the time to friends and travelers about how to stand in the metro and on buses to be more protected against such a thing (have your back to at least one area/part so that no one can stand behind you, don’t leave zippers or pockets exposed, etc.).  Predictably, as I had in 2015, I got mad and turned on “find my iPhone” to once again turn into the angry vigilante to track down my phone.  I shut down all the Apple Pay rights and started quickly changing various passwords when I got a note that my Facebook password had been changed!  These guys were good.

I used a combination of the location features offered by my local carrier, SFR, and Apple itself to triangulate to where the phone was last seen, in the Barbes neighborhood, thirty minutes earlier.  Who did I think I was to go wander there?  Was I just going to approach anyone who I thought might have it and kindly ask that they return it to me?  Silly as it was, I went anyway, and found the street mostly deserted, with an empty kabob shop nearby.  At some point the foolishness of the endeavor caught up to me and I headed home.

The next day I bought a replacement at SFR and the kid helping me commiserated, telling me this happens pretty regularly and asked why I didn’t have insurance.  After explaining that after some time the insurance costs as much as a new phone he reasoned with me to carry it for two years and then dump the insurance.  I saw his point and agreed.  This particular insurance would allow for two full price replacements in any given year.  Later that afternoon I got a taunting text from a number telling me in French, “thanks for the phone.”  I blocked the number and all the subsequent spoofed emails that clearly showed this was a group of professionals who regularly grabbed phones on the Metro and looked to spin the grief/anger/desire of the victim to get the phone back into even more “profit.”

Adjustments

So, what happened as a result?  I bought an even thinner wallet than the minimalist one that I had stolen, one small enough that it could fit in my front pocket (good luck with that, thieves!).  I also created a new habit of always putting my phone in my back pocket when traveling on the metro, usually with my messenger bag additionally slid over that pocket (you’re going to have to work harder if you want it!).  I can’t say I became ever more alert, because like anything in life, your guard goes down after a while.  But I was reminded that yes, unfortunate things can happen at times, but never forget someone may be having a worse day than you, so keep everything in context, and keep smiling.

Photo by Andrea Natali on Unsplash

Notre Drame: the Fire

I was in a train back into Paris from Frankfurt when the news started to trickle in about our disaster here in Paris.  We’ve had various shocks during the time I’ve lived here, whether it was terrorist attacks in years past or yellow-vested “protestors” in more recent months, but this was of another kind entirely.

Friends who were there as it burned told me they stood in a sea of dismayed silence.  What could lay bare the thoughts of so many hearts at that moment?  The President referred to the idea that part of “us” had burned that night.

There’s been plenty of ink spilled on what should be done with the now more than €1B pledged for Notre Dame, the symbolism of such an overtly Catholic building being destroyed in what is purportedly a secular country, and the growing suspicions regarding the origins of the fire.  But I’ll leave those matters to those with more breath than I have at the moment.

For me, more than anything, this was a lesson in losing the things you take for granted.  Just two weeks earlier, I took a friend inside to explain the genius of gothic engineering and architecture and to bask in the stunning beauty of those (still intact) rose windows.  I felt what I’d always felt since I first stepped foot inside the church in 2009: I’ll always have you.  But that’s not true.  We are not promised tomorrow.  Even centuries-old buildings made of stone are not promised tomorrow.

When you have an opportunity, take it.  If there’s a place in your locality that you’ve been meaning to see, go.  You have no guarantee that it will be there for you, or that you will have the health to see it in the future.  If you do take these opportunities, you’ll create lasting memories which thieves cannot steal, moths cannot eat, and fire cannot burn.

Part of the title for this article was lifted from a headline on one of the Paris newspapers the next day: indeed it was just as much “our drama” as “Our Lady.”

I took the photo in November 2015, on one of those nights that the light, the sky, and the night were perfect.

This story was also published on Medium.

Pinch Me, I Live in Paris

There are hundreds of postcards I’ve made of Paris in my mind.  I’ll stop, clear my head of whatever I was thinking of, and be truly and appreciatively, in the moment.

A soft sunset on Ile de la Cite seen from the Pont des Arts.

Sunshine down a narrow medieval street in the Marais.

Birdsong in the trees of Buttes-Chaumont.

This is my sixth year in Paris and I’ll still be caught randomly in moments of disbelief: “Do I really live here, here in Paris?”  As humans we have a remarkable ability to adjust to circumstances and take what was once all-consuming and relegate it to background noise.  Part of this is helpful – it can help you change the Metro three times without really looking where you’re going, because you’re avidly listening to an audiobook or occasionally walk-reading with a dead-tree book.  Part of this is harmful – we can fail to look up and see those beautiful moments that are just waiting for us if we aren’t living by our smartphones.

I was waiting for some friends last weekend outside a Senegalese restaurant in the 11th.  A couple friends had arrived early and we chatted and people watched.  I noticed a girl taking a photo of…my eyes followed the trajectory of her phone to a second floor window where a cat, paws imperiously perched on the window sill, calmly surveyed the street below.  The girl snapped the picture, laughingly looking around her to see if anyone else had seen the moment of feline curiosity.  Our eyes met and my smile acknowledged the joint secret.  We then turned back to the window where the cat had briefly retired only to once again emerge, missing only a cigarette dangling from its mouth to mark him (or her?) out as the casual Saturday evening street-watcher in the neighborhood.

Something else which slowly, then suddenly happens is the march of French into your ear.  As my French skills have progressed, what used to be background noise – the French slowly and quickly spoken around me – is now contending with my own thoughts.  The casual confessions in the metro, the heated disagreements in the street, the chatter in cafes.  I never feel like an eavesdropper in my native language, but when I’m in an English-speaking country, I feel like everyone is talking all the time because I don’t have to pay attention in order to understand English.  But as my French gets better, the volume around me is turning up.  Often times I’ll surreptitiously write down a word or expression I haven’t heard in order to look it up later.

For non-EU citizens, immigration occupies such an unreasonable portion of our mental real estate in the early years of living here that we sometimes miss the special elements of the city we are fighting to stay in.  One of the biggest benefits of a four-year card is the disappearance of the immigration question from your mind entirely.  That frees up room for all those moments that you’ll still need to fight to appreciate, not allowing yourself to take this dream city for granted.

Photo taken by me on a not-crowded day at Buttes Chaumont, which will be less and less attainable as the weather warms up. 🙂

To Rent or To Own in Paris?

The most important fact to begin this discussion – which is directed at those who wish to live in Paris, not those who wish to buy rental properties in Paris – is that the current interest rates for fixed mortgages is between 2-3%.  When interest rates are so low, buying becomes attractive, even in Paris.  Add in the fact that tenants of properties have right of first refusal on a property to be sold and buying becomes easier.  But attractive and easy does not necessarily equal simple.  There are a few things to keep in mind.

Selection

I would not recommend buying in a neighborhood that you have never lived in.  With Airbnb and other such options, you have the ability, like never before, to stay some weeks in a neighborhood or arrondissement to get a sense of the scale and speed of it.  Meet the shopowners.  Take a coffee.  Walk around.

Primary vs Secondary

One of the ways that the French state discourages real estate speculation is by levying a significantly higher tax on the sale of a secondary residence vs your primary one.  The “buy and flip” model doesn’t really work here, as a result.

Roots

If, like me, you reject modern notions like “starter home” or the idea that your home is an “investment” that you can sell, like a piece of art or a watch, when the price is right, selection becomes even more important.  What are my neighbors like?  The noise level?  Cleanliness?  This is where you will spend most of your time so it should be better than just tolerable.

Paperwork

The dossier you prepare when you’re renting will remind you of that for the prefecture, except unlike at the prefecture, where if you follow directions you stand a good chance of gaining what you went in there for, when renting you’re competing against others in a zero sum game – if you get the apartment, they can’t, and vice versa.  You’re going to need:

  • Photocopies of your ID(s) = passport + carte de sejour
  • Photocopy of your CDI or CDD if employed, as well as your last three payslips
  • If you are self-employed, your most recent tax filings and/or bank statements from your business account can serve as substitutes for the CDI + payslips
  • Your last three rental receipts from your last landlord, whether that was in France or elsewhere
  • If you think you need a guarantor, you’ll need their EDF and the last three payslips as well

You’ll make multiple copies of this dossier, both in hard copy and digitally, so that you can send them in the format that your potential landlord prefers.

The French, because the law is so dramatically in favor of tenants, really want assurance that they will have the rent reliably paid and in full, and as such will usually pick the highest-earning dossier.  As such there is a common practice of forging/using a friend’s high income pay slip to “enrich” your dossier.  Many Parisians know at least one person who has done this to get an apartment, if they have not done so themselves!

In extreme cases some landlords will require a year’s rent to be held as escrow as security against a default – but I’ve only read about this, and have never actually met anyone who had to do this.

The guarantor (or cosigner, as we would call it in America) is the most frequently-used device, however, for the risk-averse landlord, and a friend recently told me that despite the dual incomes of her and her husband which totaled far above the rule-of-thumb “three times the monthly rent” at least one potential landlord asked her if she also had a guarantor.

All leases in France are governed by the 2015 Alur Law and you cannot simply make up your own lease.  If you want to do the simplest thing, which I did while negotiating my recently-signed three year lease, just click here to use a free template which conforms to the law.

Some Recent Prices I’ve Seen

Apart from the Syndic, which I discuss below, there’s also property tax for owners, which is really pretty low – on my apartment it’s around 1000€ a year.  I often stop when passing by an immobilier (real estate agent) on a Paris street, just to get a sense of prices in whatever neighborhood I’m in, and to continue to hone my sense of the market overall.  I am sharing these three examples to give you a sample:

6 rue Guenot, in the 11th, 2 bedrooms, 27 square meters, 240,000€

161 rue des Pyrenees, in the 20th, 3 bedrooms, 52 square meters, 374,000€

5 passage du chemin vert, in the 11th, 4 bedrooms, 94 square meters, 810,000€

Yes, I know I’m exposing a Right Bank bias, but I’ve never seriously looked on the Other Side of the river.

Last Things

When you become an owner, not just a renter, apart from the maintenance of the apartment itself, you will be subject to charges from the Syndic – similar to an HOA in America – that can sometimes be very costly.  They recently installed some new piping in the hallways of our apartment and my landlady’s share was 15,000€!  If you don’t pay, the Syndic can start a legal action against you, though it is so ponderously slow that you’ve got enough time to put together the cash you need before it ever goes to court.  Your monthly fees can be around 50€/square meter per year, so my 53 square meter apartment costs around 2650€ in Syndic fees – which are paid by the owner, not by you.  The Syndic is usually hired by the association of co-owners of the building – i.e. all of the separate owners – and is a managing agent of sorts.  They ensure that maintenance is done, that the building is cleaned, and if necessary, hires a guardian/concierge (our building doesn’t have one, though my last two apartments did, and we seem to get along fine without one).

I’ve said before that I’d like to get a small place just outside Paris for the occasional weekend retreat, but with the recent signing of this lease, and with my landlady’s indication that she may very well wish to sell at the end of the term, I may be in the market to buy in Paris sooner than I expected.  But the dominant thought on my mind as I signed the lease last week was that it would be three years before I would need to think about either my living or immigration situation again, and that allows me time to focus on other, less paperwork-intensive, subjects.

Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash

Goodbye to Living in the 2nd Arrondissement

So, here’s the thing.  I never actually planned to live in the 2nd.  After a year on the eighth floor in the 17th, it had come time for me to graduate to a “real” Parisian apartment instead of just living in former servant’s quarters.  My search first led me to a ground floor apartment in the 15th, near the Sevres-Lecourbe Metro on line 6.  I was not such an established Right-Banker at the time, with routines and rhythms that I preferred, and I really loved that apartment and the neighborhood.  Alas, during the application process I was competing against an American college student who also wanted the apartment, who first raised her offer (the apartment was going for 1200€/mo and she offered 1400€/mo) to try to beat me.  When I matched, she pulled out the nuclear option and had her father pay the entire year’s lease in advance.  I couldn’t come close to matching it, didn’t want it that badly, and let it go.

I tell people there are two rules in Parisian real estate rentals: 1) you don’t get the apartment you want, you get the apartment you get, and 2) it’s always better to jump before you’re pushed.  I’ll start with the second rule first.

Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty

It’s not an exaggeration that getting an apartment in Paris is tough.  As I’ve shared here before, there are many applicants for the most desirable locations, and there may be nothing wrong with your dossier – someone else’s may just be slightly better.  Hence, if you know you’re going to move, don’t wait until your lease is up.  Get active – start looking, and bargain with both your current and new landlord as needed.  When I got my place in the 2nd, there was a lag of about six weeks in between when my lease was up in the 17th and the new apartment was available.  I had been on good terms with my previous landlady (pay your rent on time and this becomes simple) and so we easily negotiated a six-week extension to get me to my move-in date at the new place, and my new landlady was kind enough to give me the keys a week before my move-in as she was going to be out of town.  I had liked this apartment in the dead center of Paris (Metro Reaumur-Sebastopol, on Lines 3 and 4) after being used to a 10-15 metro ride to get to Chatelet, but I was rather hoping the American girl would find out the apartment in the 15th wasn’t for her, nor was Paris, and I’d be there to comfort that landlord by moving in right away.  I negotiated a one year lease with a 60-day notice to end it with no penalty, and I moved in to the apartment in the 2nd, seeing it as a temporary hardship.

I have to say, I didn’t realize just how wrong I was in those early days.  Those first three months were spent rearranging everything.  I now had a kitchen that was almost the size of my entire previous apartment.  I no longer had to take the Metro into central Paris, as I was in central Paris.  I could have friends over for dinner parties or board game nights (and did!).  It was one night months later, the apartment in the 15th long forgotten, as I was pushing open the enormous old door to the set of buildings that comprised my apartments, that I realized, “Wow, I love this neighborhood.”  My address was on Rue Saint-Denis, an ancient pilgrimage route but now home to many of the trendiest restaurants in the center of Paris as well as adjacent to a whole host of cocktail bars that were part of the nascent mixology culture here in the capital.  I had gone from 8 square meters to 39 square meters, from the quiet and wealthy outskirts of the 17th to the bohemian beating heart of the 2nd.  I was never going to leave…or so I thought.

About a year ago my landlady told me of some changes in her personal life that would necessitate a sale in the medium term – the next 2-3 years – and she was floating the idea of selling to me because, by law, I had first right of refusal as the current tenant if she planned to sell, but also because we had developed an exceptional relationship tried by all the challenges you could have (like leaks) in a landlord/tenant relationship.  We split standard wear/tear items 50/50 (like a broken faucet) and she 100% covered irregular items (like the stove, washing machine, dishwasher, and hot water heater all breaking during my three year stay).  I would maybe have to meet the delivery man (or occasionally, help him carry these backbreakingly-heavy appliances up 5 flights of stairs) but she was prompt and courteous – which from horror stories told by my fellow denizens – is not the norm in this town (or perhaps, anywhere).

I weighed the decision to buy, but it was mostly academic, because of the cost, and started to cast around for an alternative.  I found it in September of last year and signed a lease.  A friend of mine only needed an apartment for a few months before leaving for an internship in New York, and so she moved in right away and helped to defray the cost before I moved in last weekend, in the waning days of my lease, and she moved into my old apartment, with a prearrangement with my (now former) landlady for special 60-day extension of my old lease, to cover my friend until the day she was leaving Paris.

You Can Have What’s Available

When I say you “don’t get the apartment you want,” I don’t mean that you can only get into undesirable places, but rather that the idea of picking a neighborhood and style of apartment you want is an irrational act of hope rather than a thoughtful and realistic strategy.  Paris is a very particular market because it features almost-fixed inventory against enormous demand.  There are very few new buildings going up inside the Peripherique, and hence rents have to escalate in order to deal with demand.  So when I say you “get the apartment you get,” I also refer to happy accidents like my place in the 2nd.  It was perfectly adequate as an apartment, but the secret I didn’t know (because I was still too new in town) was what an amazing neighborhood it was.  That is true for many parts of Paris, not just the part that was formerly “mine.”

As the weeks approached for my move it began to weigh on me…I was “missing it already” and telling my friends any chance I could get.  I was probably pre-grieving.  The funny thing is I wasn’t moving out of Paris – but I knew that when I moved I would settle into the same routine I did in the 2nd.  When I first moved to the 2nd, I made trips out to my familiar haunts in the 17th, especially one of the first cafes I fell in love with (Le Poncelet: good, simple, no-fuss food, staff that smiled and knew your name, and never got mad when I sat and wrote for hours).  But over time, that kind of behavior dies as you develop new routines, and begin to love the three blocks around your apartment.  Most of Paris is really just a collection of neighborhoods within neighborhoods in that way.  This was my place for the last three years of my journey, and I will miss it.

But the new beginning, and the new neighborhood, is already winning me over.  More about that, soon.

Photo by Yannis Papanastasopoulos on Unsplash

The Bike Explosion Happening During the Velib Transition

While it’s true that you often don’t know how good something is until it’s gone, you also don’t realize how much better things can be until you get to try alternatives, and during the last 60 days, as Velib stations have been slowly but surely been deactivated and then ripped up for refurbishment, the dockless solutions of Gobee, Ofo, and Obike have cropped up seemingly everywhere.

Velib

Before we talk about the new kids on the boulevard, it’s probably best to understand how we got here in the first place, and that is because of the dreadful performance of JCDecaux, who had the Velib contract from the beginning.  It was their complacency that brought us to this exciting (though painful) new start.  For those who don’t know, Velib is Paris’ docked bike-sharing system and was originally pitched not only as a system that wouldn’t cost Parisians a penny, but would make the city money.  I know, don’t laugh too hard at socialists promising to turn a profit on a capital-intense venture.

But the reality wasn’t just that Velib failed to be revenue neutral.  It seems that for at least the last 5 years, Velib’s 24,000 bikes have cost the city of Paris about 15 million euros per year.  Those costs can be broken down into vandalism repair (10%), deployment to far-flung suburbs (75%), and maintenance (15%).  As most French firms sitting on a fat contract do, JCDecaux failed to proactively fix the system and predictably they were replaced at the first opportunity by a Montpellier-based company called Smoove which will offer a lighter bike, with over 1/3 of the inventory of the bikes in Paris being electric, which will surely help with the uphill/downhill problem in places like Montmartre and La Villette (people are happy to ride the bikes downhill, but uphill, not so much).  Unsurprisingly, JCDecaux reacted in a predictable French way when they lost the contract: crying, appeals, and attempted striking.

Dockless Options

While this has been going on in the foreground, regular Velib users like myself, reluctant to change from a system we knew well (though didn’t especially love), started to see some of the dockless bikes show up in the city.  Velib is docked – meaning the bikes are parked at specific stations, whereas the dockless ones can be parked, well, anywhere.  Now, while the apps all give you ways to find appropriate places to “park” the bikes not everyone pays attention and at the moment at any given moment you could find a rainbow of bikes around you (Gobee is bright green, Ofo is bright yellow, and Obike is a subdued yellow).  I didn’t switch to trying dockless bikes until it became impossible to reliably use Velib.  The native Velib app and apps like Citymapper that scraped from the information provided by that app were not indicating which stations had been shut for maintenance, so sometimes you would have to hunt for a place to park your bike, with no reliable guide other than trial and error.

That’s what led me to first try Hong Kong-owned Gobee’s system first.  They had flooded the inner city of Paris with bikes and I needed a reliable bike system as I went about Paris on a daily basis and Velib in complete rebuild mode wasn’t going to cut it.  For flat riding in short distances, the bike is certainly adequate.  When you download the app you put in a 20€ deposit and then add money to your account.  With most rides costing around 50 cents, 5€ is plenty to get started with.  The downside?  They clearly didn’t adequately plan for this deployment.  A couple weeks ago I tried to unlock 9 different bikes in the span of 15 minutes and each time I was told that the bike was broken, though the status of the bikes had not been updated in the app, leading to a waste of time for the end user as he/she tries to unlock a bike that is showing in the system as available when it really isn’t.  Such unreliability has meant that I’ve tried to unlock bikes that are not only off the system but have a hanging tag that says “I’m broken” but still managed to unlock and work for me.  The QR scanner technology is also not great and almost always you will have to manually enter your bike number to unlock it.  Will Gobee figure it out?  We’ll see.

Taking a much more cautious approach was venture-backed Ofo out of China.  They had been in talks with the City of Paris to make sure that the deployment of the bikes was something that the city approved of and they sought a collaborative process.  Given the speed of the French government, this meant that they were slower to deploy their bikes (they’ve only got about 1000 out at the moment).  Because they are pretty rare I only rode my first one a few days ago, but I have to say these bikes are dreamy.  Unlike the single speed Gobee bikes, the Ofo bikes have three speeds and simply feel stronger and sturdier.  This does make them a little heavier than the Gobee bikes, but the Ofo bikes are superior to the old Velib bikes, with the new Velib bikes not due to make their appearance until early next year.  As far as their app goes, unlike Gobee, their QR scanner works flawlessly in well-lit conditions and I have yet to run into a situation in which I scan a bike and then the app apologizes, telling me that the bike is actually broken, not available.  They also don’t require a 20€ deposit (for now).

There’s also Singapore-based Obike, but I’ve really only seen those bikes in the Marais, so alas, I don’t have anything to report there.  I do know that their bikes and pricing are the same as Gobees: single-speed and 50 cents per 30 minutes, as opposed to Ofo’s multi-speed bikes costing 50 cents per 20 minutes.

What’s fascinating is that studies show that dockless solutions do not necessarily eat into the revenues of an existing docked solution, but create more user demand for bikes overall.  This makes sense as I very readily joined up to two dockless schemes despite being a Velib user since 2014.  Will I go back to docked once I’ve gone dockless?  The 29€ annual rate for Velib subscription is likely to rise, and given my current rate of use on the dockless schemes, Velib, even with a price increase, is likely to remain the most economical.  What has changed is that Parisians have been freed from the staid shackles of one “okay” choice in bike sharing and have multiple options of varying quality.  Instead of solely relying on Velib, active users like myself are likely to retain accounts with whatever solutions are out there and use them as time and occasion dictate.  Whatever 2018 holds for bike sharing in Paris, it’s going to be orders of magnitude better than what we’ve had until now.

Cobblers, Tailors, & Their Side Hustles

If you pay attention and spend a bit of time thinking through the economics, you’ll see that there are dozens of ways that people build incomes for themselves in Paris.  I wanted to tell you about two of them.

Cobblers and Keys

In America there are automatic key-cutting machines which can be operated by a 16-year old employee, can be found in both drug stores and hardware stores, and produce keys at a cost between $1-$9 USD.  To be fair, American house keys tend to be small and not particularly complicated.

But, as far as I can tell, machines such as these are illegal/unknown in France (knowing the power of strikes, more likely illegal).  Every place I’ve been to in order to get keys cut has a professional grade key machine, with access to even more.  The “even more” refers to the high-end computer-encoded keys that take a couple weeks that can cost 125 euros to make and require a copy of your ID and lease, or the badges, which run 20-40€ that some people use in order to save having to remember their key codes.  Paris has a very particular key market, with skeleton keys playing a prominent role, and the cheapest you’ll pay for any key reproduction is 6€.

This is all to say that rarely will you find someone who only does keys.  The most common combination you will see is a cobbler who also makes keys.  Because there’s more skill required for cobbling than for key making, I’m assuming these are cobblers who simply added key-making to their repertoire.

I’ve estimated by observing business at several locations, that between these two income streams, someone could easily take in a minimum of 70k€/year at such establishments, and they probably take in much more, given that they have rent and often have at least one employee.  Not to mention our favorite: French social charges.

Tailors and Packages

In France, as in the US, not all dry cleaners do alterations.  You’ll often see signs for “retouches” that indicate someone who does alterations and sometimes tailoring from scratch.  My tailor does a lot of trade in dry cleaning as well, but it’s clear that he has it done by one of the dry cleaners nearby, and then simply adds his markup.  Many dry cleaners don’t do alterations here, so the convenience of dropping something off that needs patching, then having it cleaned for you after, is what you are paying for.

But apart from the dry cleaning side hustle, my tailor also provides what can best be understood as “Amazon locker” services.  For years before Amazon mainstreamed such a concept, people in big cities needed places to drop off and pick up packages: essentially a storage place without shipping services.  For example, if you are moving out of an apartment and need to return your modem/router, you will often be asked to print out a prepaid shipping label.  You slap it on a box and bring it to a location like my tailor’s, which is listed as one of the possible drop-off locations (along with optician shops or sometimes small boutiques).  He gets some marginal extra income for no investment (he’s provided with the scanner and software to accept your package) and he’s happy to pile the boxes around what could generously be called his “reception area.”  He also has a cross-marketing opportunity to snag some customers who may not otherwise have known of his existence, and are happy with his nice demeanor.

Both my tailor and my cobbler make decent livings, make their own hours, and never worry about business.  They always have smiles on their faces.  Yet, they were smart enough to dig their wells before they were thirsty, and created multiple streams of income without being distracted from their core line of work.  You can still hustle here in France.  They just do it with a more leisurely attitude.

Photo by Dương Trần Quốc on Unsplash

An Honest Locksmith

“Does anyone know any locksmiths who are not crooks?”

This was a question I posed over a year ago to a Paris & France facebook group that I help moderate that has a fair number of Parisian residents in it.  While the post yielded some laughter and plenty of chagrin, I got no direct leads from it, but mentioning it to a friend got access to a very honest one who then was quite curious as to how I got his name, as he normally only works directly with concierges/gardiennes of buildings.  The chase for an honest locksmith all started because a friend couldn’t get into her apartment.  The lock was very old and had never been replaced, and just finally gave up the ghost.  However, it gave up the ghost while she was outside and no one in our friend circle had someone reliable we could call on a Saturday night (of course, that’s when the key had to stop working).

I had had someone add a bedroom lock for me a few years back at my current apartment, and I tried him, but he was a regular weekday 9-5 type and didn’t do “emergency” visits.  That left us with the only option, which is to call one of those dreadful numbers that are left for you in the hallways of your apartment.

Every day and every week some building in Paris is getting flyered or stickered.  Some people with backpacks or trolleys go from building to building and leave cards (or small stickers) that have helpful telephone numbers printed on them, like for the police (dial 18), or the firemen (17) or for the paramedics (15).  But the other “helpful” include plumbers, electricians, and the people in question, “serrurier” or “locksmith.”

I had never called any of these numbers because in Paris, as in many other places in the world, you ask your friends for trusted providers.  There is no screening or certification process for the numbers on these flyers – they don’t even have names.  They just say, “Plombiere” and have a phone number.  No name, no hours, nothing else.

Alas, needs must, and we called one of these numbers and yes, of course, he could come, in the next two hours, for…300€.  I called around to a couple of my friends who confirmed that yes, this was standard on a Saturday night.  She bit the bullet and agreed to pay and on the way there they told her that it would cost 400€, actually.  While my friend is from the American South and hence disposed to be kindly, she’s also lived in NYC and doesn’t respond well to being scammed.  She politely informed them that she only had 300€ and could they please hurry up.  They did show up and she told me that they jimmied the lock like a couple of thugs, which they also happened to look like, and left pretty quickly after taking her money.  She was told that she would be getting a new lock for that cost, but no, that didn’t happen either.

We got a trustworthy locksmith through a friend to come Monday and install a new lock, for 120€.  He was on-time and was, unsurprisingly, not a thug.  He also didn’t “advertise in one of these flyers.

The moral of the story is dig your well before you’re thirsty.  If you don’t have names for handymen, plumbers, electricians, and locksmiths that can be trusted, ask your friends and put them away for a rainy day.  If you don’t get any from those friends, ask me, I have a few.  But don’t wait for something bad to happen, and please, please, don’t rely on those “handy” cards that show up in your mailbox every single week.  Most of the time, they are anything but.