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.” 🙂

 

Unexpected Consequences: Instant and Ongoing Decluttering

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that the Four Hour Work Week is a major influence on my life and was a big part of the “how” portion of the massive quality of life upgrade that was my move from America to Europe.  In the book Tim puts forth a notion called “mini retirements” in which instead of working and saving until some mythical age to sell everything and move to Thailand (for example) why not do that now for a few weeks and see if you actually like it.  There are other reasons to take mini-retirements, including not assuming you’re in control of your health or when you die, but what I want to focus on is Tim’s insistence that you dump pretty much everything.

Stuff.  It can define us.  And Americans in particular have so much room that nothing stops us from buying more.  We even define our “national holidays” by sales of stuff.  We even have a very healthy business category of self-storage, which is an embodiment of our hoarding mentality.  Alas, that industry is now kicking off in Paris (and probably greater France as well).

Tim’s points were simple: get rid of everything that doesn’t have a particular or sentimental value.  You can always buy another couch, or plates, but maybe you can’t buy that one pan Grandma taught you to cook with.  Dump the other stuff, keep that.

I decided pretty quickly that my “must keeps” consisted of roughly 100 framed prints that had mostly been painstakingly transported from Europe over the years and adorned all the spaces of my then-home in America, as well as the 4000 books that I had collected over many stops of library book sales and used and new bookstores over the years.  I spoke to a friend in Canada who had a large amount of space in a new home he had recently moved into, who also happens to homeschool his kids.  He would get a teaching and parenting resource for free, as well as for his own enjoyment, and I would have free and safe storage of my treasures.  We agreed on a 5-year term, after which time we could discuss what was to follow.  I knew after 5 years in Europe (I’m 2 in now) I would either have a place to ship the books or have a long term plan about what to do with them.

So books and art sorted.  I rented a large truck about 6 months before I left the USA and drove the books to Canada.  As a note, if you do this, the Canadians will ask you for a value, so they can tax you…on stuff you already own…because hey, you might choose to sell it!  So, cynically (and in keeping with American, and what I would find out, French traditions), I assessed the 4000 books at a value of $.01 each and the art at $1.00 each, to a value of roughly $200, which I still had to pay tax on.  Small price to pay honestly, but it does add an extra 30-45 minutes to your border crossing.

I then proceeded to dump all the furniture I had painstakingly picked out during my “I’m a grown-up now with a real salary” phase when my college furniture found the curb.  These were the delicious dark wood headboards, the plush suede couches, the tasteful (and useful) ottomans.  I even had a lovely Victorian double-sided desk.  All gone: happily mostly sold to friends and friends of friends, and what was still left over went onto craigslist.  For the very last items (what was I doing with my own power drill?), I left them with my sisters to sell on their own or keep.

That left me with roughly 20 resealable tubs into which I mostly, but not exclusively, put items of real sentimental value.  Stuffed animals I had as a child which I kept in really great condition and which I wished to pass on to my children or to my nieces and nephews.  A report on birds I wrote as a ten-year-old.  A drawing my sister made for me.  That kind of stuff.  Some dear friends have been kind enough to keep those tubs in a spare room in their home.  I plan to keep reducing the quantity of tubs in that room every time I visit, loaded with goodies from Europe for my gracious caretakers.  And each year that passes that I don’t miss the stuff in those tubs, it makes it that much easier to get rid of when I do see it again.

In truth, limiting myself to the four full-sized pieces of luggage I ended up bringing to France was an enormous task that I totally underestimated.  I flew American Airlines to France in December 2013 and at that time the policy was: 1st bag free, 2nd bag $100, and bags 3-10, $289 each.  Hard to believe, but this is actually the cheapest and fastest way to move your stuff.  I checked into freight, believe me, and either my calls weren’t returned, or my emails weren’t returned, or it was prohibitively expensive when I did manage to get a price sheet.  Same for UPS, sea-freight even.  And then you have to go to Le Havre to pick it up.  Yeah, skip that.  Pack it with you.  It’s really cheap, comparatively.

Now, when you’re bringing that much stuff (my aforementioned 4 pieces of luggage…I won’t even share the absurd limits of carry-on that I stretched), you find a way to bring too much, so I want to encourage you to spend one month packing these 4 pieces (or fewer).  You’ll take more stuff out as you work on it every day and keep asking “Do I have to have this?”  I know when I showed up to the airport that I was at least 5 pounds over on each bag.  But I knew how to get around this: the skycap.

This profession doesn’t exist in Europe, oddly, though it is exactly the sort of profession you expect to exist there.  They are (for my Euro friends who might be reading) men and women who stand on the curbside to help those who wish to “skip the line” get boarding passes and check bags there instead.  For this “convenience” you are expected to tip – anywhere from $5-$25/bag.

That morning that I left Kansas City the skycap picked up all 4 of my bags and gave a slight grunt for the last one, the heaviest.  “Where ya goin’?”  “Paris.”  His eyes widened as he looked back over the bags, quickly calculating how much it was going to cost me.  “I’m moving.”  “Ah.”  He started weighing the bags, and I watched each bag on the digital readout.

53 lbs

57 lbs

52 lbs

61 lbs

“They are all over.”  He was reminding me of the 50 pound weight limit I was already aware of.  Overweight would add $150 to each bag.  I nodded, putting on a guilty and downtrodden look.  I wanted my silence to speak.

“I can take care of this for you, if you make it worth my while,” he said after a beat or two.  I tried not to beam and high-five myself, as this was the exact response I was banking on.  I took out my last bit of American currency I was carrying, a $50 bill, and put it on the counter.  I still said nothing.

Given that he was about to save me $600, he was expecting more, I’m sure, but he probably realized that $50 was good pay for 5 minutes and a few key strokes that indicated that yes, these bags weighed no more than 50 pounds.

We were operating in that shadow economy, and little did I know that this was precisely the kind of hustle I needed to survive and thrive in my new country.

So, to sum up:

  1. Get rid of mostly everything.  Try to come up with creative, trade-based, non-recurring monthly cash flow ways of storing the rest.  You need to spend as little as necessary in your new country when you first get there.
  2. Take a long time to pack what you are bringing, in order to have a critical instead of a stressed and harried eye to look it over with.
  3. Don’t hesitate to leverage American idiosyncrasies to bring what you want.
  4. However, do be pragmatic and take the time necessary to figure out what you really need vs. what you can buy when you get there.

A giant move out of the country can be the impetus for that Spring Cleaning you always aspire to do (and which my sister Clare does roughly every 3 months) but never get around to.  Which is yet another reason to move abroad.

And when you do get here, the housing in Paris is small enough to prevent you from restarting that life of stuff you left behind.  When you shop, you constantly ask yourself, “where would I put that?” which is a practical question that you don’t have to answer in always too big America.

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For a great video to share with kids or anyone who cares about our planet and the absurd and unsustainable way of life in the First World, check out the work that these guys have been doing.

Photo from jsmjr.  Labeled for reuse.  What a cute dog.

Meetup: A great way to build a core of diverse friends

This summer I went to the Fete de la Musique with a large group of friends.  Though it originally started in France it’s now a worldwide annual event.  As the evening closed out at our fourth musical venue out of hundreds we could have chosen, I took a moment to be thankful for a platform that has connected me with so many wonderful people.

Meetup is a company that started in NYC in mid-2001, but really gained traction after 9/11 as New Yorkers tried to connect with people who wanted to talk and process the disaster that had befallen their city, their nation, and the world.  It has grown quickly in the US, and as a result it can cost north of $100USD/year to start a group.

For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, Meetup is a “just add internet” for any type of group.  Want to “jog on Wednesdays” or “knit on Tuesdays” or “club on Saturdays”?  There’s a group for you to join.  Can’t find the group you want?  Start your own.

For the casual browser it’s a dazzling arena of fun activities with strangers who might become friends.  For the organizer type (comme moi) at only 12€/year to start up to three groups, it’s a bargain that pays back massive dividends.

I created Paris Culture Lovers as a way to find people like me – who love art, film, books, conversation, food, and day trips.  We are closing in on our first year as a group and have done almost 90 events, some of which were among my most treasured memories of 2015.

So what’s the bad news?

  1. Many groups are ephemeral.  People get enthusiastic, start a group, never do an event or do one and give up.  That’s okay.  It happens.
  2. Because Meetup has created a “buffet” culture, and because of society worldwide becoming less accountable about events and invitations, many people feel they can no-call and no-show an event they have RSVPed for, or cancel hours or minutes before an event, for frivolous reasons or for no reasons whatsoever.  You might not do that to friends but you may be inclined to do that to strangers (At PCL we have invented a ranking system that measures and ranks you by the number of events attended and gives senior members priority for events).

But neither of these things are dealbreakers and as this year ends, a group of the core of Paris Culture Lovers have become good friends and strong acquaintances, which means a lot to a stranger in a strange land – even more so to the type like me, who isn’t seeking to surround himself with expats to build an anglo island in France.  There are meetup groups for that…if that’s what you want.  But when I want to feel like America or be with Americans…I visit that country.

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PS I should note that I had two Meetups fail due to lack of interest – a casual kick around soccer group and a chess players group.  But you have to try in order to see what works 🙂

Taxes and Transferwise

I recently had the opportunity to meet with one of the readers of the blog over lunch.  We discussed some of his strategies for staying in France but since he had just recently arrived I asked him to check with some of his connections (he had done work at an accounting/consulting firm) about getting taxes filed.  That’s right – as an American, even if you’re here on a visitor visa and prevented by the terms of your visa from working for a French company in France, the French government requires you to file a tax return.

You read that correctly.  Now, despite the fact that you don’t owe any taxes, you still have to prepare the taxes, in French, according to French accounting laws.  If you don’t have these intersecting skill sets, let me know and I can connect you with an amazing firm that did this for me for the 2014 tax year.  If this has slipped through the cracks for you, let me know asap and I will try and connect you – there’s no fine and no fee to pay (as ostensibly, you don’t have taxes to pay) but you don’t want the French government catching you doing something you are supposed to do.  Better late than forgetting altogether.

2015 will be the last year that I will be considered a “non-fiscal” resident – as part of the path to citizenship (which involves my new visa) is paying taxes.  If you aren’t married to a French person, and don’t pay taxes for 5 consecutive years, you aren’t on the path to citizenship.  I still can’t say I “look forward” to paying taxes, but I do look forward to “being on the path.” 🙂

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Early on in this blog’s life I wrote about opening a French bank account.  It’s honestly something you’re going to need to do if you plan to stay here for longer than 6 months.  However, again pursuant to your visa status, you really only want wire transfers coming in from yourself, not from employers – even if those employers are outside France – this will just cause questions at the Prefecture should they look closely at your bank accounts when you come for your appointment.

Wire transfers are “old-fashioned” in our modern age and carry old-fashioned fees.  The originating bank charges the sender (i.e. YOU sending to yourself), the receiving bank charges the receiver (again, YOU), and then there are currency exchange fees.  However, this system is in the midst of being disrupted by a company started by the guys who built Skype and bankrolled by the likes of Sir Richard Branson.  It’s called Transferwise.  If you click this link your first transfer is free so you can try it for yourself with no risk.  To learn more about how they do this, and circumvent the wire transfer system, watch this funny video.

Hope you enjoy the service as much as I do.  I’m an unabashed user, though I can’t imagine my US or French banks have been happy to miss out on all those fees I used to pay them 🙂