No-frills train travel: a new trend

What if I told you that train companies were using principles pioneered by RyanAir and EasyJet and applying them to the convenience and speed of train travel?  If you love train travel as much as I do, you might be as excited as I was when I first found out about them.  Thankfully, I’m still excited about them, because they are generally great services that I’ve used multiple times over the last 4 years.

iDTGV

Back in 2004 SNCF created a program called iDTGV focused on budget travel to and from Paris.  The idea was simple: why not sell budget fares, only available via online ticketing, on older trains that can be towed behind undersold TGV trains that have to run anyway?  This would mean that underperforming routes could be subsidized and a new line of revenue would be created.  The service would have a stricter luggage provision and wouldn’t have onboard conductors (though there would still be a food carriage).  Instead, the tickets (and luggage) would be checked outside before boarding.  iDTGVs continue to be part of the ticketing mix offered by SNCF.

Ouigo

In 2013 SNCF, partially due to the pressure of the ultra-low-cost air carriers on rail passenger numbers, iterated further on iDTGV and came up with Ouigo.  There are is a “Oui” bus service called Ouibus (pronounced wee-boose), which are directly competing with Flixbus (fleex-boose) – comfortable seats, free internet, electrical outlets at each seat, and rock bottom pricing.  But I want to focus on Ouigo trains this time and may tell you more about the great bus lines in another article.

Ouigo trains offer amazing pricing: two of my friends took a Ouigo from Paris to Bordeaux this summer and paid 30€ each for the 2 hour trip – that line has recently been upgraded to shave 90 minutes off what used to be a 3.5 hour trip to the heart of the Atlantic coastal wine country.  Ouigo also runs to Montpellier, Lyon, Nantes, Lille, Rennes, and, of course, Paris.

So…what’s the catch?  There are several.
  • Tickets can only be bought online through the Ouigo site or at my personal favorite, Trainline (the French startup formerly known as Captain Train).  Tickets must be printed out or presented using a mobile app.  Not having your ticket printed can lead to you having to pay more before boarding.
  • Like iDTGV, your luggage is restricted, but even more so.  You are allowed one piece of hand luggage and additional pieces cost extra.
  • You won’t be using the “main” Paris stations.  Ouigo trains coming to Paris stop at CDG, Marne-la-Vallée (Disneyland), or Massy (in the dreaded suburbs).  This strategy means SNCF doesn’t cannibalize the revenue of the business traveler, who is quite happy to pay less to travel the same route if you make it easy, but if you tell him/her that the departures are from the three above stations, which vary from 45-90 minutes away from the center of Paris by RER, they will almost always pass.  Tell budget travelers the same thing (like saying you need to spend 70 minutes on a shuttle to get to Beauvais or that on Ouigo they will be arriving at Saint-Exupéry when they go to Lyon) and not only will they jump at the low fare, they might elbow you out of the way to ensure they get it before the tickets sell out.  The business reason is that SNCF has to pay less for trains departing from “budget” stations than from the main ones, which are the same questions that airlines face when choosing which airport to use and whether to use gates instead of stairs, etc.
How does SNCF limit costs with Ouigo?
  • As alluded to above, the fees it pays to the company that runs the stations, SNCF Reseau, are less for the “budget” stations.
  • Like iDTGV, there aren’t “conductors,” who are the single highest-paid staff on the trains for SNCF, but rather a team that is tasked with doing multiple things, from cleaning, to addressing customer issues, security, etc.
  • There is no food carriage.
  • There is no customer service phone number or email address.  You can only address complaints or questions using the website.
  • Ouigo trains are run up to 13 hours a day, almost double the standard 7 for most TGV trains.  They can run on their own or be simply added on to an existing TGV service, so SNCF can leverage the assets as best needed.

Ouigo has sold over 5 million tickets since inception, 80% of which sold for 35 euros or less.

Thayls, which most of us associate with The Netherlands, is actually a subsidiary of SNCF, and unsurprisingly, with Ouigo’s success, a version has popped up called IZY (A French speaker would pronounce those letters as “easy” which is the branding play hoped for, but an English speaker might understandably ask, “What’s an Izzy?”).

IZY

IZY one-ups iDTGV and Ouigo by offering rock bottom pricing – as low as 10 euros, and offers an outside-of-France option: Brussels.  The first time I took IZY I saw 18 IZY carriages hitched up to 6 Thayls ones.  Now, keep in mind that a regular Thayls fare to the Netherlands (Rotterdam, Schipol, or Centraal) averages between 90-150 euros, so a journey that takes half that time (and half the distance) at 10 euros is quite a deal.  Those fares sell out quickly as they are “standing” tickets, as do the 19€ “sit in the unheated/uncooled hallway of the carriage” fares, but even the 29 and 39 euro fares sell pretty quickly.  A nice aspect to this budget service is that if you do buy the 10€ “standing” fare, and there are seats available when the train departs, the staff will invite you to have a seat (I got “upgraded” from the 19€ fare I paid in that manner the last time I took an IZY).

* * *

There are whispers of more continent-wide programs similar to what Ouigo and Izy are pioneering.  This can only be good news for travelers who will get more options, and less-expensive ones, to satisfy their wanderlust.  The first “big” play in trains, continentally, will come when Eurostar finally launches their London-Amsterdam line, which was supposed to launch December 2016, but is currently slated for Easter 2018.  To be fair, it is Eurostar’s most ambitious project, and requires coordination and cooperation with the train companies in 4 different countries.  The train will take around 4 hours from city center to city center, and that makes it, like the Paris-London Eurostar, faster than flying, which will necessarily cause airfares to drop between those destinations.

That said, traveling to the Low Countries these days presents the traveler with a bit of an oddity: security screening.  With the terrorist shadow we have lived with the past three years, the trains are expected to do “something” except that train passengers are used to not being screened.  So what ends up happening on outbound services is a very long line in which people walk through metal detectors, set them off, and get waved through anyway (like what happens around 16h00 every day at the Louvre and Orsay, when the staff have decided they’ve done enough work for the day) and bags are put through a screening process that sometimes features no one monitoring bags.  They are moving too quickly to truly catch anything, and I can only hope that something doesn’t happen on one of the trains because skipping the hassles of air travel is one of the great pleasures of rail travel.

Those pleasures await you on these innovative (and inexpensive) services.

Photo by Stefan Kunze on Unsplash

Changing your address

Most Americans are used to being able to go online and for the cost of $1 (USPS says this is for identity verification) and the time it takes you to fill out the necessary online form you can change your address for 12 months for no additional charge.  I’m sure you can guess, the French have no reason to make it that easy for you.

Prepare the documentation

You need to bring:

  • Mail from the old address
  • Proof of your new address (a lease or QDL would be fine)
  • Money – a full year of forwarding costs 26,50€, 6 months about half that (you can pay cash or CB).
  • ID – passport or CDS is fine

When you arrive you will also need to fill out a form recapitulating all the above information.  After you hand them everything and pay, you’re done.  The process took about 5 minutes from start to finish and it only took that long because I took 2 minutes to fill out that form.  They recommend that you come at least 5 days before you want the forwarding to begin.

This visit was occasioned by my old concierge in the 17th telling me that she was leaving France and as such would no longer hold my mail and packages still going to that address for my monthly pickup and nostalgia coffee in my old haunts in the 17th.  I’ve lived in the 2nd for 3 years now so that tells you how long she’s been doing this great service for me (and getting treats for doing so!).  My concierge in the 2nd was aloof for my first year in the building but we’ve become fast friends as I’ve passed on to her old luggage I no longer wanted.  Oh well, all things have to go at some point, and it was nice to learn about this rather simple piece of administrivia.

 

Getting my Carte Vitale and going to the doctor…finally

It felt futile. I knew the French didn’t operate this way, but I was feeling worn out and was reverting to American habits.  I was writing, in French, on a post-it note, the following message:

I am very happy to send another yet another check to cover my health insurance charges, but I still have not received my Carte Vitale.”

I knew as I sealed the envelope that some French functionary processing my cheque would see this note, laugh scornfully, then peel it off and place it delicately into the circular file.

So you can imagine my surprise when, one week later, I received a letter in the mail letting me know the only thing missing to process my Carte Vitale was a photo and my signature, after I had verified some information they had on me.  It is one of those times I was quite happy to be wrong.

This was the only part of my paperwork processing that had gone sideways as I left visitor status and transitioned into my profession liberale life.  But, since I’m not a frequenter of doctors anyway, it simply remained a slight irritation.  When four months had passed without any sign of my Carte Vitale, I made a copy of my translated birth certificate, as well as a copy of the original, and sent it to RSI with a pleasant cover letter.  No reply.  Another four months passed.  That’s when the wry (but polite) post-it note was written, which just goes to show you that every now and then an unexpected tactic might just work.

* * *

The visit to the doctor felt like an interstitial in an Inspector Clousseau skit.  I had crowdsourced a good doctor from my Paris network, one who had a decent command of English, though I made the appointment in French.  I made the mistake of not asking how to find the place (surely an address is good enough?) and when I walked into the vestibule of the apartment building that was the address for my doctor, I searched in vain for signage that would indicate my desired destination.

Not quite willing to admit defeat yet, I decided to climb the stairs (surely the doors will be marked?).  But by the time I reached the 3rd floor (American 4th) I realized that this was a fool’s way to figure things out.

Humbled, I turned around and went all the way back down the stairs.  Thankfully, on the ground floor, a resident was having her door locksmithed and I asked if she knew where the “medecin” was (on a side note, “doctor” is one of those words in French that doesn’t change ending whether you put a “le” or “la” in front of it).  She responded insouciantly (as if she gets this all the time) that “all the doctors are on the 5th floor.”

Bingo.

I took the elevator up to the 5th floor, found her office and checked in, roughly ten minutes after my original appointment time.  Ten minutes after that, I heard a gentle, “Monsieur Heiner, S.V.P” from the hallway and went in.

Her room was cheery and welcoming and full of books.  I felt like I was in a comfy study, not a doctor’s office.  She took out a clean sheet of paper, wrote my name down at the top, drew a straight and clean black line under it, then looked up at me, smiled, and asked how she could help me.

Puis-je parle avec vous en anglais?” I queried.  She smiled down her glasses at me.  “Yes, of course.”  “I just don’t have the vocabulary to speak well about my health in French.”  She nodded.

Ten minutes later she was asking for my Carte Vitale and 40€.  The carte goes into a card reader just like a chip-and-pin card, but with no pin.  “Cash or cheque?” she asked.  “Oh, you don’t take bank card?”  “Non,” she gave the slightest of pouts and shook her head.  “Is this the case for all medical appointments?” I asked.  “Non, it is a choice,” she said.  I had just enough cash on me: “You cleaned me out,” I laughed.

On the way out she handed me a form which designated her as my “medecin traitant” which in American parlance is “primary care physician.”  Getting this form to La Ram/RSI would make sure I got properly reimbursed.

I was off to the lab after that for some testing and I thought I had understood her directions about how to get there (it was in the same structure, just down a different hallway) and 7 minutes and a few dead ends later I was in front of the receptionist at the lab.  Twenty minutes and roughly 10 glasses of water later, I was prepared for my lab work.  When it came time to draw my blood, the nurse gazed at all the vials which had been set aside for me (around 11) and asked if there was a reason I needed all the tests.  I responded in French that I hadn’t been to a general doctor for 2-3 years and I figured why not check on everything?  We both laughed.

I went back to the waiting room and five minutes later the receptionist called me.  A swipe of my Carte Vitale and 80€ on my bank card later, and I was done.  I went home, dropped the form for my new “medecin traitant” in the mail, and went back to my day.

Two weeks later, to the day, an envelope arrived in my mailbox.  I had completely forgotten that I had some money coming back.  There was a check for 15€ against the 40€ I had paid for the visit, as if even 40€ was “too much” (as an aside here I’ve mentioned in the past that you can acquire a “mutuelle” policy that tops up even this copay so you are 100% reimbursed all the time, but I don’t go to the doctor enough to add that extra cost to my budget).

My first encounter with the French medical system: easy, painless, friendly, efficient, and inexpensive.  Against the roughly 700€ a year I pay to cover my national health insurance, not too bad.

Troubleshooting: Internet, Leaks, and Hot Water Heaters

There are things that are very simple in France.  One of my favorites is the “set it and forget it” autodebit for most of your recurring expenses: your EDF (electricity bill), UGC pass, or your mobile phone, just to name a few.  Then there are those things that are not so simple, like getting internet.

Running water or internet?  Internet, please.

Now, I had been a bit misled on this point because establishing ultra-high speed Fibre internet at my chambre de bonne, the shoebox in the sky in the 17th where I spent my first year in Paris, had been a breeze.  I gave the internet company the necessary information, they scheduled the installation, and on the appointed day, the technician (with an apprentice) showed up, ran the wire, gave me the router, and just like that, I had some of the fastest internet in France.  Something no one ever tells you is that before you go in (or online) to establish service, you’re going to need a little code that’s just outside your apartment door.  This tells your internet provider the “location” of your apartment within the complex web that is the Parisian building ecosystem.

When I moved to the apartment I was in now, I told my landlady that I wanted the fastest internet possible.  Her first move was to ask the existing internet provider, named Free, to up the speed to Fibre.  They first sent a technician to run the wire, and then he told me when the box came it would simply be plug-and-play.  It was not.  After 2-3 weeks of back and forth on the phone and my at-the-time dreadful French (I would use phrases in French like “I am running the white wire into the green square in the back of the the black box” which I would have easily said in English as “I’m running the fiber into the incoming slot on the router.”) I gave up on Free and ordered Bouygues.  They turned out to be even more incompetent (how is this possible, I wondered) and I gave up on them faster than I gave up on Free – only giving them about a week to work.  SFR was the one who originally hooked up my Fibre back when I was living in the 17th, and so I told my landlady to order SFR.  And, just like that, I had high speed internet within a week.  SFR has been my mobile provider since I arrived and has been the most reliable internet provider I could have hoped for.  This is to say nothing of the fact that my mobile plan allows me to use my data and phone in the USA when I visit (allowing me to cancel my T-mobile mi-fi subscription, which I mentioned here).

Degats des eaux (Leaks)

So, one thing we all have in common in Paris is stories about leaks in our apartments.  When I first arrived I listened in horror as a date told me that she had had mold growing in her bedroom due to a leak for over a year and had a landlady who refused to work on the issue for her.  I’ve had a Canadian friend who persevered through numerous challenges here but finally gave up when the roof of her apartment caved in due to a leak from the upstairs neighbor.  And I myself have three different leak stories.

The first one is from my upstairs neighbor who is the near opposite of a model neighbor (think “likes to have loud parties on weeknights until 03h00”).  He was away in Brazil when a leak started to come in from, quite obviously, his shower, which is above my bathroom.  He sent in a friend to examine the issue – and his tenant – a nice Dutch kid who I was acquainted with, was very understanding – and I let him use my shower and bathroom while we tried to investigate the leak.  It kept coming, but at a very slow rate, so we figured that there must be something wrong in the walls.  He had planned a complete gutting of his apartment in 6 months, so he wanted to delay destroying the walls of his shower to fix the problem until then.  As the leak was intermittent, and I didn’t see an effective way to press the issue (a tenant, not an owner, going to war with the syndic over a slow leak dispute with an absentee owner – that just sounded exhausting) so I waited patiently.  It would be another 6 months before the relevant paperwork had been completed (his insurance people came to visit, my insurance people came to visit, I had a handyman come out to estimate – he told me I would need to wait at least 3 months after the leak ended so that the walls could dry so that he could then strip and repaint).  And my upstairs neighbor was in denial the whole time that he was at fault, until one day he, myself, and my next door neighbor, Martine, who really had some words with him during the summer of renovation, went up into his apartment.  I pointed out to him the rusty main pipe which clearly was the source of the leaks.  He had been looking in the wrong place.  He immediately quieted down and never said anything more on the subject.  Eighteen months after the leak had started, the bathroom was restored, repainted, and frankly, was even better than before – as there was a new main pipe which had been run all the way from my apartment into his.  About halfway through this process, sometime in 2015, I learned what all people in Paris who have apartments must know: this is normal.  And franchement, I had it pretty easy, as even though it was something to “endure,” I wasn’t out of pocket for anything – my neighbor’s insurance picked up the bill for the renovation of the bathroom, and the Syndic paid for the new main pipe.  And I learned something essential to know when living in Paris: a leak is always going to take a long time to solve.

The second leak occurred while the last story I told you was still in progress.  My downstairs neighbor Virginie, who I’m on very good terms with (you can really bond with your good neighbors in common opposition to the bad ones), rang my doorbell at 06h00 one morning.  I sleep like the dead so I’m rather surprised I heard the doorbell at all but she had been pressing it for a while and when I showed up looking like I had just gotten out of bed, she asked me to “Please turn off your water.”  I simply obeyed her and gently turned the master water cut-off for my apartment.  I then followed her downstairs and stared in horror at her bathroom ceiling.  It had partially collapsed and was raining water.  This wasn’t an ongoing leak, but rather looked like a bunch of water that had accumulated and finally broken through.  My eyes mentally went up into my flat and I realized that the items above that part of her bathroom were my washing machine, kitchen sink, and dishwasher, all potential culprits.  The likeliest one was the washing machine, which had been installed some months before.  Perhaps a leaky slow drip?  The plumbers for our building came later that morning (after they too, woke up) and discovered that yes, the people who had installed the washing machine had failed to tighten something, leading to a slow drip which, after 6 months, had destroyed Virginie’s ceiling.  Another series of insurance visits later (I was becoming a pro) I found out that due to the repair costing less than 1000€, that the Syndic (or was it Virginie’s insurance?) would be taking care of the repairs – I was off the hook.  Given that I was already developing the maturity from my own painful leak at this time, I took this one fully in stride.

I won’t bother you with the story of the third leak – suffice to say, I’m a leak expert 🙂

Chauffe-Non! (my hot water heater – chauffe-eau – breaks)

Last Saturday around 10h00 I got into my shower, only to discover that the hot water refused to come on.  After two minutes of penance in cold water, I got out to investigate.  My E.L.M. Leblanc water heater had a blinking red light, which could only mean one thing: it had finally died.  I say “finally” because last summer it had had a major “illness” and the repairman at the time stated that it was on its last legs.  My landlady, understandably, who had watched my oven, dishwasher, and washing machine all break down over the years (to be fair, she purchased the apartment in the mid 90s, so the fact that we were replacing in the mid 20-teens was to be expected) and then replaced them with brand new appliances, was reluctant to drop the nearly 2500€ that a new water heater would cost.  But alas, that’s what she ended up paying today when the same repairman was back, took out the old one, ostensibly to give it a decent burial, and put in one that resembled, rather like my washing machine, a spaceship.  It even had a wireless controller that uses your daily schedule to optimize the energy usage of the machine.

* * *

There’s a few things to note here.

I have an exceptional landlady.  She’s always been there for me.  I’m sure she can’t have been happy about having to replace all these items, but she knows their breaking had more to do with their age than anything I did, and my patience with these issues and her diligence with all the repairs have made for a winning team.  It doesn’t hurt that I’ve befriended all the best neighbors and always pay the rent on time, and agree on marginal increases in rent each year.  I don’t take for granted that I live in one of the best locations in the city, in the heart of the 2nd.

I have wonderful neighbors.  While my neighbor upstairs likes to pretend he is the only one in the entire building, my next door neighbor and downstairs neighbor are great people, and I’ve hosted them for dinner at my place, where they got to try my signature ginger sesame chicken on rice.  Getting to know your neighbors in Paris is a choice, but it’s a wise one considering how often you might need them (or they might need you – Martine rang me up at midnight to let her into our building a few weeks ago because the pin pad for our building was on the fritz, and she couldn’t get in).

All of these are happy endings.  As I noted above, I’ve had friends finally give up on Paris after one incident too many regarding housing.  As you’ve read before on my blog, life in a foreign country is challenging enough without everyday incidents on top of them.  Americans are used to – by and large – being able to call and get these things fixed tout de suite, because the only thing that matters in that country, other than the state of the Kardashians, is the customer always being right, whereas in the most recent incident regarding my hot water heater, I just started laughing when I saw the blinking red light, as it was SATURDAY and there would be no one who would come out to my place to fix the hot water heater.  I knew I would just have to wait until 09h00 Monday morning, and I and my guests ended up taking showers at Virginie’s over the weekend.  Which reminds me, I need to bring her some speculoos cookies from Belgium, where I am writing this.

Like quicksand, the more you struggle, the worse it will be.  Last year I started doing mindfulness meditations using Headspace (here’s a link for “take 10” which gives you 10 free meditations to try it out) and it only helped reinforce a personal rule that, like the large breakfasts I cook, is out of place in France: refusing to complain.  I won’t even allow myself to complain in my head, privately.  Complaining accomplishes nothing (when you say this to French people 1 out of every 4 or so will cite some “scientific study” in which it was shown that complaining helps you be less stressed.  Color me skeptical.) and actually I think complaining makes things worse.  In all of your challenges in French life – not just with immigration but in living in apartments, it’s always best to remember how very first world these problems are.  So your hot water heater is out.  Boo hoo.  At least you have running water into your Parisian apartment.  So there’s a leak.  Big deal.  Get over it.  Your internet isn’t working.  Wah.  Go to a Starbucks and get it for free in the meantime.

Don’t focus on your problems.  Focus on solutions.  Doing so gives you more time to wander in the Louvre, enjoy a coffee, and walk with a friend through our picturesque streets and parks, which are some of those simple pleasures that I wish everyone in Paris could enjoy as often as I do.

Three Years On, Part IV: Where is home for the immigrant?

A few days ago I began 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 final article in a series of four.  Here are the first, second, and third.  

“It will be nice to be home for a month, right?”  My friend smiled, expecting an affirmative rejoinder.  I smiled too, as I knew what he meant, but I gently replied, “The US is home for my family, but Paris is my home now.”  He nodded, though his countenance said, “I want to talk to you more about that sometime,” and I’m sure my smile betokened a willingness to do so.  But I haven’t fully articulated through those thoughts, even mentally, until recently.

My recent month Stateside was full of activity – one sister got married at the start of it and another one had a baby at the end of it and all the while I carried on running my businesses while catching up with old friends.

Home.  In the seven years I lived in Kansas City it wasn’t long before I felt that warm sensation upon returning there from a trip.  Home was near family.  Home was where my friends lived.  Where my business was growing.  Where my staff worked.  Home where was where my bed was – where I had a fireplace and where I could quietly cook breakfast.  But as I look at these characteristics, even now, I realize I am describing comfort.  And yes, a component of home is comfort.  But that’s only part of it.  That’s the present.

Home.  There’s also the past.  You need to feel a rootedness and a belonging.  But that was a tenuous position for me in KC.  Yes, I finished an undergraduate degree there and built a productive company.  But it was self-made.  Perhaps that desire to connect with the past was why I loved St. Louis so much.  Not only did I have relatives buried in that city, but in the one year I lived there I felt the comfort of knowing that when a branch of my family had emigrated from Europe (from England, Ireland, and Alsace), that they settled in Southern Illinois and the St. Louis area.  Yes, Kansas City was in Missouri, but the St. Louis side of the state was actually tied up with my family history too.  Rootedness and community – people who know your name, your habits, your history, and your family.  That’s home too.  That’s the past.

Home.  Home is the future too.  I have some truly lifelong friends in KC that I cherish time with whenever I visit.  As I built my life in that area all sorts of ideas were mooted as I considered a lifelong stay.  The University of Missouri at Kansas City had a fully funded Ph.D. in Entrepreneurship that would have offered a leisurely career in academia, but it didn’t excite me, and given my experience teaching a couple semesters as an adjunct in an MBA program, it was clear that the hierarchical setup in a university setting wasn’t for me.  I considered politics (a sure indication of the naive 20-something) because I held (and still hold) practical nonpartisan civic planning principles that I think have wide appeal.  I thought about buying into businesses, and went so far as preliminary discussions with some principals of those companies.  But none of it inspired me in the visceral manner that Paris did.

Home.  Knowing you are where you belong now, with roots in the past, and a future to look forward to.  That all comes together for me in Europe, in Paris, deep in my bones.

* * *

Two weeks ago I visited the Museum of Immigration out on the edges of the 12th.  It’s a remarkably ugly building, but the exhibits and information are good, particularly in explaining the flow of different immigrants to France – some for reasons of war and violence, others for economic betterment.

As I took in the mountain of data I considered my own case.  I wasn’t fleeing war, as so many are in Europe these days because of incoherent US-led actions and policies that managed to destabilize the Middle East and North Africa.  I wasn’t seeking a better life economically.  Indeed my experience at the time of just selling a business should have encouraged me to stay.  I had moved to a US city with no connections, and with some of my own funds, a couple investors, and a co-founder, built a company from nothing to one that successfully sold and transitioned to a new owner.  I could simply wash, rinse, and repeat if I chose, with little interference and regulation from the US government.

There was also my family’s disapproval.  They, who had already considered me an absentee uncle and brother would be even more aggrieved.  But that was in part my fault for not successfully explaining to them before how differently I weighed my own personal desires and ambition against family and community pressures.

When I immigrated to the United States in 1988, I was already a citizen, but the move wasn’t my choice.  In 2013 I came to France as a noncitizen, but entirely by choice.  And like many immigrants before me, I jumped through legal hoops while setting up the infrastructure for my own businesses to be based in my new country.  I didn’t come here to “get a job.”  I came here to build a life.

I’ve always been an optimist, but it’s only recently I’ve realized that immigration – of whatever kind or character – is a supreme act of hope, not just for the “better life” which is, seemingly the only reason ever mentioned in news stories about immigration, but because it is such a big ask to make and create a new home.  Getting a new job, a new house, learning the ins and outs of a city – these things are not so hard.  But building another home – tying those long, colorful, and winding threads of past, present, and future into a coherent tapestry, that’s hard.  That’s perhaps why those of us who weren’t born here love it so much, because we don’t take any part of this experience for granted.

As the year ends, I would challenge you to consider whether you are truly living at “home.”  And if not, why not?  2017 is waiting to challenge you.

The photo is from my own instagram feed, from the day I officially moved out of America, December 10, 2013.

Book Club: My Life in France, by Julia Child

Julia Child is best and rightly known as the woman who brought French cooking to America in an accessible and sensible way. You may know her through her recipes and her famous TV show, but this book, My Life in France, is all about the woman herself – her life in Paris and Marseille, and other places throughout Europe as WWII ended and the Cold War began. You would hardly guess that she worked for the OSS, which was the forerunner of today’s CIA – but in a way that’s believable as she really did “infiltrate” into an American kitchen that was focused on frozen foods and items you could make out of a box or tin.

It was also fascinating to hear her describe the French and their ways – it reads like it could have been written today, even though Julia is describing post-war France, almost 60 years ago!

Here’s a story she recounts about her sister Dort and struggles with French:

“Monsieur; voulez-vous couper mes chevaux avant ou apres le champignon?” The hairdresser looked at her quizzically while the ladies under the hairdryers broke into laughter. What Dort had been trying to so earnestly ask was: “Sir would you like to cut my hair before or after the shampoo?” But it came out as: “Sir, would you like to cut my horses before or after the mushroom?”

She also reflects on the reason why she felt so at home in this country:

“I looked out the window. I had come to the conclusion that I must really be French, only no one had ever informed me of this fact. I loved the people, the food, the lay of the land, the civilized atmosphere, and the generous pace of life.”

On the French attitude towards “modernizing,” which I laughed out loud reading:

“The individualistic, artisanal quality of the French baffled the men Paul called the “Marshall Plan hustlers” from the USA. When American experts began making “helpful” suggestions about how the French could “increase productivity and profits,” the average Frenchman would shrug, as if to say: “These notions of yours are all very fascinating, no doubt, but we have a nice little business here just as it is. Everybody makes a decent living. Nobody has ulcers. I have time to work on my monograph about Balzac, and my foreman enjoys his espaliered pear trees. I think, as a matter of fact, we do not wish to make these changes you suggest.”

Indeed – it is this contrarian view against the rush of globalization and frenetic intemperance combined with a balanced attitude of “enough” that attracts so many of us to France.

Of course, this is a book by Julia Child and you will find yourself, if you have even the slightest inclination towards cooking, jotting down recipes or tips she casually sprinkles throughout the book.

It’s a great read, with quite a few photos, many of which were taken by her loving and devoted husband Paul Child.

A version of this article originally appeared on my Goodreads page.  If you like what I wrote here, consider tipping.

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.

Three Years On, Part II: Changes

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

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

PARIS

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

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

FRANCE

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

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

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

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

EUROPE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Years On, Part I: Penseés for those planning to move to France

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 first in a series of four.

I’ve successfully obtained two different classes of visa, long-term visitor (part one and two, and renewal) and independant, also known as profession liberale (part one and two).  It’s been really gratifying to get mail from readers who simply printed out those articles, followed them to the letter,  and got visas. Indeed, I spent so much time researching and documenting the process that I now offer paid consulting services (in person and via skype) to those seeking these visas, and refer those seeking other types of visas to professionals I have grown to know and trust.  Today I want to share, in broad strokes, just a few of the points I touch on when speaking to readers who use my consulting services.

What is a scouting trip?

This is the chance for you to take off your tourist hat and visit Paris as a possible resident.  You go to visit apartments that are in your price range to rent, even if you aren’t going to be in town for a while.  You meet with people who work in your industry (if you have a job) or meet with business owners in your field (if you’re an entrepreneur).  You go to Meetups and Coworking spaces to build a network and get to know the city a bit.  If you need a bit of assistance here, use Shapr.  And yeah, take a daytrip and/or a trip to a nearby country to remind yourself of what’s at your doorstep when you live in this gem of a city.

What is the number one mistake made by those coming to Paris for the first time?

Not having your housing situation locked down.  In fact a friend of an acquaintance showed up and was living in hostels and airbnbs, and was completely clueless as to just how tight this market was (and is), and after 45 days of searching and applying to over 2 dozen places, gave up and went back to her country.  To be fair, I think she came for a job, not for the city, so she wasn’t committed to persevering, financially or emotionally, but I’m shocked to see even graduate students not take a very serious stance on this.  I recently coached a friend through this process who is enrolled in a 2-year graduate program but only had arranged for a 4-month airbnb stay with no backup plan.  Paris Expat found her a great place but witnessing her anxiety reminded me of my heady early days when I was in an airbnb for 90 days before moving to my first apartment in Paris, a little shoebox in the sky, on the 8th floor of a centuries-old building in the 17th.

What is one ongoing nuisance?

Bank accounts.  I’ve written about it here and here and it seems at the moment that unless you are a fiscal resident of France, US citizens are being granted French bank accounts only with a lot of difficulty and documentation.  (Two readers of this blog who are not fiscal residents did manage to get an account at Credit Agricole, after being turned down at Societe Generale and BNP Paribas, among other places.)

There are a few workarounds.  You could, like my friend Patty, use your American credit card to pay for everything (maybe even earning points and miles), and then settle that bill every month from your American bank account, withdrawing petty cash as needed from that account.

Alternatively, if your only major French-focused transaction each month is your rent payment, Transferwise will also allow you to pay a French bank account directly from your US bank account, with a bare minimum of fees, which is a lot more fun that withdrawing hundreds of euros from an ATM and then handing that to your landlord.

If you want a complement to the Transferwise solution you can use Revolut, which issues you a chip and pin card which you can load up in the currency of your choice from the bank account of your choice, all manageable from an app.  Did I mention it’s all totally free? 🙂

What is one thing you cannot do too much of before arriving?

Conversational French.  You can take all the classes you want and know 6 different tenses and a lot of vocabulary, but if you haven’t practiced speaking French, you will be in for a rude awakening when you arrive.  In a way, I parse it as the difference between “studying” French and “learning” it.  You can “study” all you want, but your “learning” will commence when you arrive and get to speak this lovely language every day, and hear the pace, cadence, and the distinct Parisian pronunciation.  Get a private tutor, join a local meetup language group, use an app, and maybe, as a last resort, take classes (they are time consuming and move only as quickly as the slowest person in the class).  As I post this article I am spending a month in the States and to keep my French up I’m attending the local French conversational meetup.

What did you fail to do adequately?

Budget.  There’s always “one more expense” I could not have foreseen.  If I could go back and do it again I would have taken my planned-down-to-the-centime budget and multiplied it by 1.25, thereby giving myself just an extra bit of fat.  As it turned out, the squeeze on my budget in the 11th month of my stay caused me to start another small business to generate more cash flow.  So, in my case the squeeze created a great new thing, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t have benefited from the “1.25” strategy myself.

Last thing…

Find and develop French friends.  Severely limit your reliance and/or attendance at “expat” bars or events, which ironically use English as the linguafranca.  I’ve found there is no faster way to the heart, stomach, and soul of France than my French friends.  They will help you with your French, ask for help with their English, and give you genuine local reaction to news, politics, and new places you want to try.

The photo was taken by my friend Domo on a recent visit to the Rodin Museum.  On almost every first Sunday when many museums are free, a group of us go out for brunch and a museum visit.  To date we have seen 22 museums together.

I’ve been beta-testing a private facebook group for readers of the blog.  Feel free to join it here.  If you’re interested in my writing in general, you can check out my Patreon page.  

Taxes, again

So in France you receive a tax bill for the current year based on what you were assessed the previous year.  You then pay that bill in payments so that by the time that year’s taxes are due, you will ostensibly be “ahead of the game.”  Of course, this depends on your income stability.  If you make a lot more money this year than last year, then those payments are simply a down payment on your future tax bill.  Conversely, if you are unemployed, you will still be paying into the system at the rate you did when you were employed.

Wait, Stephen, I thought you said I didn’t have to pay taxes?  You’re right, as a visitor, I don’t have to pay taxes, but I still have to file and declare taxes.

But the French government didn’t do their sums correctly, and I had to do a bit of correspondence with them to fix it.  In this blog post I told you that they recognized this error but they ended up only removing some of the amount, so I had to write another letter explaining that I didn’t owe anything.  It only took four months and two letters. 🙂

But the person who issued my corrections didn’t update my file, because I got a notice to start paying taxes based on last year’s amount…which I got dismissed.  So I had to draft another letter explaining (with photocopies of the dismissals) that not only did I not owe taxes for the 2014 taxes, but I did not owe advance payments for 2016, as I wouldn’t have any tax liability in 2015 either.  I only moved to my right to work status in January so next year I will actually owe something.

Remember in dealing with the French: be patient, have your documentation to the Nth degree and backups, and trust the process.  The fastest road to frustration is to imagine you are entitled to anything.

I expect to get a dismissal of my current tax bill.  I’ll let you know if something else happens.