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.

OFII, revisited

It was 07h40.  “I’m early,” I thought, and decided to stop in for a quick breakfast.  It was a patisserie on rue de la roquette, halfway between Bastille and my 08h00 appointment that morning.  My thoughts flashed back to my first visit to OFII, back in 2014.  What a greenhorn I was back then – worried that my French wouldn’t be good enough, or that I wouldn’t have the necessary documents.  How times change.

I took my last sip of coffee after finishing off a strawberry beignet and at 07h55 casually sauntered towards OFII (L’Office Francais de l’immigration and de l’integration).  There were two lines.  The one on the left was for asylum-seekers.  My eyes involuntarily flicked up to the 6-8 souls in line, who looked forlorn.  I couldn’t imagine their individual situations and stories.  Then my gaze fell on the line on the right, my line, which was already 20 deep.  I wondered to myself why they had felt the need to get there early.  But then I realized that some of these people may have just arrived in France, and like me in those early days, didn’t want to take a false step: cue arriving 15-20 minutes early for your appointment.  Good on them!  I, on the other hand, wasn’t going to get there until right about 08h00.  I love my sleep and I knew this wasn’t really going to be that stressful.

I’ve written before about the dread that one might feel about entering a prefecture.  How many dreams and plans have foundered and died on the shoals of French bureaucratic requirements and the moodiness of civil servants!  And yet, I’ve always maintained that the antidote to that dread is to be overprepared.

But the Prefecture is the “scary” part: you are getting authorization from the French government to be here, legally.  OFII, by comparison, would be giving me the bise, and welcoming me to France, which is why I wasn’t carrying a thick sheaf of papers, but rather a book to read while waiting.

Promptly at 08h00 we started shuffling forward.  One guard checked the nature of our appointment to verify we were at the right place at the right time.  The second guard verified by ID (I brought my passport and recipisse).  We then went upstairs and got into another line, to check us in for our orientation.

The lady at the desk verified our names, checked us off her list, and verified which language we would be interviewed in after the orientation.  We then shuffled in, one by one, into this room.

IMG_1900

At about 08h20 or so we were all assembled, roughly 25 of us, and our orienter came to tell us what would be happening today.  She spoke entirely in French, but not with the typically hurried Parisian cadence, but the slower measured cadence of the south, knowing she was dealing with many novices of the language.

She said there would be three parts of our day: video, interview, and a physical.  The video also worked with individual audioguides you could hold up to your ear which would allow you to follow along in real-time in the language of your preference.  One of our class requested Arabic, and another Kenyan.  If you’re uncertain, be brave and ask for Anglais, svp.  No one cares about your French level at this point, I promise.

The video was quite good, as orientation videos go (not too many cheesy situations or fake drama).  Obviously, as a royalist, I smirked a bit as the narrator spoke about the French “values of the Revolution,” considering that France was built upon superior values that predated that revolution by centuries, if not a millennium, but today was a day for quiet learning, not for a disquisition from Stephen on the murders, excesses, and poor logic of that revolt.  The video concluded with an explanation of the necessary steps of integration we would all need to go through now, namely:

  1. Attendance at a one-day class in French civics, with a translator supplied if requested.  This class purports to teach you about liberté, egalité, fraternité, laïcité, solidarité, and any other és that I may have missed.  They will also teach you the mechanisms of the French state, for example, that the President of the Republic still wields the ancient power of the Kings of France, i.e. the ability to pass a decree without legislative consent.  The class is one day, goes from 09h00-17h00, is obligatory, and is scheduled during your interview.  Mine was scheduled for the 30th of June, about 6 weeks from the visit I made to OFII yesterday.
  2. Attendance at a one day class in “living and gaining employment in France.”  As with the aforementioned civics class, this one is obligatory, is one day only, and requires you to bring your ID.
  3. Attendance at free French language classes to obtain a basic level of competence as determined by the French state.  The course runs a minimum of 50 hours, and a maximum of 100.  You simply ask to test whenever you are ready.  This condition is in force unless, when you do your interview at OFII, your French is competent and clear.  Then you get an attestation that you don’t have to take the class.
  4. Your signature on a contract which commits you to doing all of these tasks within one year, and that you will integrate into French life and the French way of thinking “avec assiduité.”

I was pleased to be exempted from the French courses via my interview.  If you are required to take the classes I believe they occur on either Mondays or Saturdays in your arrondissement.

She then asked if I had kept my medical exam from OFII from my 2014 visit.  I laughed and told her that I kept ALL THE PAPERS, gesturing to simulate a large stack.  She laughed and asked if my visa renewals were continuous, with no gaps.  I replied in the affirmative.  She then told me I was done for the day, as I didn’t need a new physical (which I ostensibly would have if I didn’t have that record or hadn’t kept a continuous immigration record).

She printed oIMG_1901ut my appointments, had me sign the contract, and gave me this lovely folder to put it all in.

It was 09h30 and I was done for the day!

Three things to note:

  • I was the first person called after we watched the video and our orienter briefly recapitulated the important points and answered some stray questions.  My being called first may only have been because they knew I didn’t need a physical and wanted to see me first.  But I don’t think you need to schedule more than a half day for this appointment, even for a worst-case scenario.
  • You will get the convocation to go to OFII after your second Profession Liberale appointment.  If you can’t make the date they give you, reschedule as soon as possible so as not to hold up this end of the process.
  • If you bypass my 2-years-as-a-visitor route and go straight to Profession Liberale, you’ll be doing this appointment 90 days after you first officially move to France.

* * *

I slowly walked to Bastille after the appointment.  I was in the official “immigrant” stream.  The appointment went well, and I felt welcomed to my beloved France.  That, after all these years of hard work, felt good.

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Featured image of an early morning Place des Vosges, not far from OFII, originally appeared here.  Follow the photographer here, who gave permission for this photo to used.

 

Profession Liberale Visa: Part 2 (90 days later)

Ninety days after you obtain your profession liberale visa, assuming you have done everything correctly after that momentous day at the prefecture, you will have a number of new documents to present to the Prefecture for your follow-up visit.

Chief among those “correctly done things” is a visit to URSSAF within 24-72 hours after you obtain your visa.  I went to the office near the BnF right when it opened, and completed my appointment within 20 minutes.  I showed her my recipisse designating my new status, as well as answered some basic questions regarding where I lived and which specific classification I was looking for.

URSSAF is in charge of social security contributions, among many other things, and feeds out its information to other agencies, including RSI, INSEE, CIPAV, Ram, and the Ministry of Finance.  In turn all these agencies will start flooding your mailbox, asking you to send them follow-up documents.  This is a dizzying number of acronyms so let me start with the easy one first, and perhaps the most important.

INSEE is the Institute de la statistique et des études economiques and is responsible for issuing you a national identification number, which you will need now that you are formally entering French society.  It’s similar to the American “social security number,” though your French one is oddly longer but easier to decode.

RSI is the Régime Social des Indépendants and is a mutuel – it’s a subassociation of URSSAF (which, by the way is Unions de Recouvrement des Cotisations de Sécurité Sociale et d’Allocations Familales).  Without taking you too far into the woods of unnecessary and redundant and overlapping French agencies, RSI serves as a “mutuel” for health insurance and pays the difference between what the national health insurance pays and what you owe.

Ram is a partner agency of RSI that works with small business owners and artisans.  They are, in my case, responsible for issuing my Carte Vitale, which is what you use to pick up meds at the pharmacie and for all your medical visits.

Finally, there is CIPAV (still with me?) – Caisse Interprofessionelle de prévoyance et d’assurance vieillesse.  They are in charge of your pension, and no, you cannot opt out of contributing.

If you end up getting employees (I have absolutely zero intention of doing so, given the draconian anti-business laws in this country) you will also need to know about one of the huge mutuels, like Malakoff-Mederic, for example, who would handle health care, insurance, and retirement for your employees.

The Ministry of Finance, of course, handles your taxes and they have a very distinctive looking envelope.  As I was writing I turned to a colleague at my coworking space and told her, “Nothing good ever comes in this envelope!”  She laughed in agreement.  They want to know what space, if any, in your home is going to be dedicated to your work.  I maxed that out.

Registering at URSSAF after you obtain your visa will trigger letters from all of these places.  Don’t worry, you don’t need to register individually!  You’ll also get schedules of future billing – membership ain’t free.

You will also need to bring your first 3-5 invoices from your new professional life, proving you’ve already started working.  My agent raised her eyebrows at the four invoices I handed her.  “Not bad!” she said in French and smiled.  I reminded her that she was the agent who had approved my first long term visitor renewal, back in 2014.  “It’s a long way!” she said.  My nod didn’t convey just how much I agreed with her sentiment.

And finally, you’ll need to show them your shiny new French bank account dedicated solely to your new business.  If you aren’t well advised, when you go to open one you’ll ask for a professional account and pay all the fees that come with that designation.  Both my accountant and my attorney advised me to get a simple personal account and dedicate it to my business, which I did.

I have been extremely satisfied with Societe Generale, but by way of auditioning a new bank (and giving myself more options), I opened an account at BNP Paribas.  With the recent implementation of FATCA and my US citizenship, this was anything but a smooth ride, but I’ll talk about that in another article.

So bring them most of this documentation (they don’t care about your CIPAV stuff, for example, but as I’ve said in previous posts, bring the second folder with all the “just in case they ask” material), along with “the usual,” i.e. your lease, renter’s insurance, passport, and recipisse.

Your agent at the prefecture will double-check all your paperwork, and then cross-check it with your file from 90 days before.

They will then print another recipisse and have you sign in two boxes in the application for your physical carte.  Processing time is about 10 weeks at the moment.  I got a July 13th pickup date from an April 21st appointment.  And, thankfully I always keep all my paperwork that I’ve ever done for French immigration, as I have to bring the original police report I received when I lost my last card.  And I get to pay extra (16€) for losing that card, despite having paid over 100€ to pay for the card in the first place.  Remember, this is France, not Germany. 🙂

It’s sinking in.  I work in France, legally.  I’m on the long road to citizenship which comes with paying taxes here.  I know that all these acronyms and agencies can be scary and intimidating, but honestly, it’s also a great filter to separate the dreamers from the doers.  Those who want to be here will laugh through this process because a little (or a lot) of paper shouldn’t stand between you and your dreams.

Featured image comes from the Australasian Mine Safety Journal, under creative commons usage.

The Expat visits “home”

If you’ve built a full and rich life someplace before coming to Paris, visiting that place is much less a “vacation” than a carefully and meticulously planned series of meetings, appointments, coffees, and meals.  Throw in the occasional doctor/dentist visit and you’re pretty full up (for those wondering, I still visit my US doctor/dentist.  I have almost a decade of experience with them that I treasure and I maintain my health well enough – for now – to not have to find their equivalents in France.  As I move into the French health care system this summer I will finally at least meet these specialists).

The Good News

  • It is great to catch up with friends and family.  They are anxious to hear about your life, and are truly happy to see you, knowing how impacted your schedule is.
  • You get a better sense of what’s going on there.  Before I left I authored a piece on Trump, then went on to follow it up with the research of asking Americans who actually lived in America about some of my conclusions.

The Bad News

  • There’s a reason you’re in Paris.  You love it here and you don’t really like to be away for any period of time – much less the 3-4 weeks you are gone to make an intercontinental flight worthwhile.  I don’t like being away from Paris, but…
  • It’s a necessary evil.  Having the first world luxury of emigrating to a country of your choice far away from these smiling faces means that you simply have to accept the division in your life that you have created by moving to a foreign land.
  • I’ll return to the US later this year for my youngest sister’s wedding.  I won’t bring books to read, as I won’t have time.  I’ll bring my smile and my energy to see as many people as I can during my visit.  Those conversations will linger with me long after I return to my new home.

Where is “home” anyway for people like me?  Start by watching Pico Ayer’s TED talk on the issue.

The US visit: tips and tricks

I’m just returning from my fourth visit to America after relocating to France, and I thought I might share some tips and strategies to help you when you make your flights back.

Consider flying from London.  The fares are simply much more aggressively priced out of there and I got a $600 USD roundtrip ticket from London to Los Angeles on just 120 days notice.  Outside of the ultra-low-cost carrier market, prices are always higher when you fly to a country that doesn’t speak the language of the country you’re flying from.  For example, Paris to Martinique (French-speaking to French-speaking): $450 USD when I was scouting those fares a couple months back.  Paris to Grand Cayman (French-speaking to English-speaking), just minutes further away?  $800 USD.  It would make sense to fly to Martinique and then hop a small flight to the Caymans if that was your destination (but why not just try Martinique?  Grand Cayman, Little Cayman, and Cayman Brac will be there for you next time 🙂 ).  The airlines are guessing (rightly) that you’re probably a tourist, not just visiting family, and hence feel they can charge you more.

The same applies here in Europe.  If you book far enough ahead you can get 60€ roundtrip tickets on Eurostar (no I’m not kidding) for Paris-London and then fly from London.  Or you can make a side trip to London out of it.  You’ll still be ahead based on your savings from not flying out of Paris.  The exact same flight I took from London had a connecting leg from Paris…for $300 USD more.

Realize that 3 flights are more expensive than 4 (but are also easier).  I’ve visited America as a leg of a visit to South America.  I’ve also done the additional internal roundtrip route.  The latter is definitely cheaper.  My parents live in California so my inbound and outbound flights were out of Los Angeles but I also spent a week in Kansas, which I flew to directly using Spirit Airlines, the only ultra-low-cost carrier (read: charges for water and carry-ons) in North America.  The $200 for that flight (Los Angeles-Kansas City-Los Angeles) plus the original $600 for the London-Los Angeles segment added up to $800, or roughly $400 cheaper than the London-Los Angeles-Kansas City-London route I had priced out at $1225 USD.  Of course the “savings” cost me 6 hours as I had to fly “back” to LA, away from Europe, and as I landed in LA to spend a few more days with my parents after visiting friends and family in Kansas I decided to do the easier 3 flight journey for my sister’s upcoming wedding in October.  After this most recent trip, I think the extra cost will definitely be worth it.

Consider flying Air New Zealand if they are on your route.  I was so pleased with my experience in coach of all places that I wrote about it the day after I landed!

Use Priceline for rental cars.  Name Your Price is still alive and well and I used it to get a car for $20/day USD in Los Angeles, with Avis.  If you want to know the hack, send me an email.

Keep some loose cash with your electrical adapters.  You won’t have to go to an ATM right away when you deplane, and you also won’t forget the adapters you need.

Carry a MiFi device.  T-Mobile has a $20/month plan that gives you 1 GB of data that rolls over what you haven’t used.  Since I’m only in the US once or twice a year, when I do show up, I have accrued 6 or more gigs over the months I’ve been gone, which I can then freely use.  I turn off my European data when the airplane door in Europe closes, turn this device on when we are wheels down in America, tether to it, and then basically use my phone as if I were in Europe.  The only difference is that when I want to make calls, I use Skype, which costs pennies per minute to call landlines.  You can buy the credit directly through the app.  The device has a one-time cost of about $80 USD.

What other tips do you all have to make visiting the States easier?  Please share them in the comments.

Photo was taken by me this month on the rocky Laguna Beach shoreline.  My amazing parents, celebrating 40 years of marriage this year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and this

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

and this

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

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

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

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

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

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

The path to French citizenship begins, or “Visitor no more”

I saw her place the green and white paper on top of my file.  It was the paper used to print a recipisse (the temporary document one uses for identification while waiting to get a permanent identity card).  Externally I remained stoic.  Internally my jaw dropped and I wanted to shout out.  That enormous dossier that I had handed over 15 minutes earlier had worked.  Not only had I successfully jumped the track from the hamster-wheel of visitorhood to the track to an EU and French citizenship, but this had been the shortest prefecture visit since I moved to France in 2013.  From start to finish it had been thirty minutes.  I had felt supremely confident in my dossier – but this was France, after all.  There could always be something objectionable.

Still dumbstruck, I silently handed over my photos.  As the big printer hummed, she clipped out one of them, handed the rest back to me, then dutifully affixed it to my recipisse.  She then gave it all the stamps and signatures it needed after I had verified all the information and signed it myself.

Today is eight days after I successfully changed to a Profession Liberale visa.  As long as I earn a certain income over the next five years and pay the requisite taxes, I’ll be eligible to apply for French citizenship (note: that does not mean I’ll get it).  I’m officially allowed to work in France, now.  I had to go to URSSAF yesterday to do more paperwork, and I need to come back in 90 days to give the prefecture that paperwork, but that’s literally paper pushing, rather than the complex compilation of a dossier.

Could I have taken this path immediately in 2013 instead of taking the visitor route?  Yes.  Indeed, if there are any of you out there interested in taking this path, I can help consult you through this process as someone who has successfully completed it and has a winning template (and if you live in Paris I’ll throw in a lunch, too).  For more information, email me.

And yet, the answer for me is also No.  I could not have taken this route myself, knowing as little as I did about France in 2013.  I didn’t even know what I didn’t know, and my plans and ideas about my time in France were so inchoate when I landed here.  Yes, eight days ago I took a bulletproof dossier to the Prefecture…but I knew it was bulletproof because of my last two visits there and what I had learned about the French and their expectations in the last three years.

It’s also been marvelous to hear from people I’ve met because of this blog – not just those who needed help regarding the visitor visa but those who have started to meet with me to strategize about what I’ve just successfully done: a transition to the citizenship route.  A few of their testimonials are here.

Thanks for continuing this journey with me.  Last Thursday was the end of the beginning.

The image is the flag of the Bourbon Restoration.  It’s as good a time as any to admit that I’m an unabashed royalist.

French for “Customer Service”

“It’s not my problem”

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

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

Groupama

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

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

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

As the French write: “Waoh!”

Decathlon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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