Yes, you should get a French bank account

A friend recently wrote an account of her experience getting a bank account in France and it reminded me to do an update of my various thoughts on this topic beyond my first time getting a personal account, a business account, and the legislation which is the reason for difficulties Americans face on this front: FATCA.  The most important reason to get a French account is that it’s the only way you may hit a snag on your renewal.  Not having a French account signals a lack of integration into society.  You may be able to squeak by with something else, which readers have received inconsistent results with, so the advice I give is to do what definitely works, not “let’s try this.”  Hope is not a strategy, and certainly a poor idea when it comes to renewing visas in France.

While major French banks are understandably reluctant to give a US citizen a bank account because of the high cost of compliance with FATCA, if you hold a residence card (whether a sticker in your passport or the hard card in your wallet), you can, respectfully and calmly, demand a bank account as a right.  Yes, there are low-cost online banks that have no branches, like Boursorama, that will eject you from the application process the minute they find out you are a US citizen (trust me, I tried).

My recommendations, based on personal experience, are BNP Paribas and Societe Generale, in that order.  They both have excellent online banking in the form of web access and brilliant native apps for your smart phones.  My counselors have always been available when I’ve needed help and my cards consistently work in countries all over the world, often offering an extra layer of security by needing me to verify purchases over a certain amount via entering my password on the app on my phone.

What I’ve been told secondhand by readers is that both LCL and HSBC are also willing to grant accounts to US citizens, and feel free to pitch your bank of choice in the comments below.

When you stop in at a bank you’ll almost always be making an appointment for a future date, as the bankers are often booked some time in advance.  If you don’t feel comfortable speaking the entire time in French, make sure to ask for someone who does speak English, and many of the staff do.  They will often provide you with a list of what to bring, which will include, but not be limited to:

  • Passport
  • Carte de Sejour (1st year visa holders – this is the sticker in your passport, everyone else – it’s the hard card)
  • EDF or ADH and/or lease
  • Proof of income
  • Most Recent Tax Filings – both US and French

and expect to pay around 15-20€ a month for even a basic checking account.  It’s part of the deal.

They also won’t let you pick your PIN, but I’ve found this to be a smart policy, because it doesn’t allow a thief who correctly guesses one pin access to all your cards, which Americas tend to use the same PIN for.

An intermediate step in the right direction, if you want to be able to easily transfer in Euros, pay your rent, etc., is a free Borderless Account from Transferwise that allows you to hold multiple currencies with no monthly rate and even includes a free contactless debit card.  But it is not clear to me that statements from a Borderless Account will pass muster with French immigration and no reader has yet let me know that such a strategy works.  The euro-denominated account in the Borderless Account is based in Germany.  I absolutely love Transferwise and use it for other transactions outside of my personal and business ones, which I use my French accounts for.

Change your address? Not so fast!

It didn’t seem that long ago that I penned an article explaining the few steps necessary to change your address.  So, as a “veteran” of the process, I thought it would be just as simple to do it again.  Not exactly.

The Post Office

As I did the last time I wanted to change my address, I showed up at La Poste with a copy of an EDF from my new address as well as proof of my old address.  The clerk helping me seemed fairly new to the whole process, and after 15 minutes of typing in my information, he asked his supervisor to certify the form, and the supervisor squints at the computer monitor and says in French, “Oh, sir, this is much easier to do at home on your computer.”  “Why would I do that at home, I’m already here,” I responded in French.  Then he did it.  The shrug.  “It’s better,” he said, and walked away.

No need to get upset, I thought.  I just walked home and went to the La Poste website.  I laughed out loud at the tagline it sported: “Simplifier la vie.”  Oh yeah, you’re making it really simple.  I clicked through to get to this page.  I clicked the 6-month option to find out that I was required to create a La Poste account to do this.  Remember to smile, I thought.  It’s just France being French.  I created the account, filled out the contract for the change, paid, and got a confirmation.  At the bottom of the confirmation, in fine print, it told me that I needed to take this printout, with a copy of my ID, to the post office, to certify the contract.

I looked at the Paddington Bear on my desk with disbelief, asking him to commiserate.  But, remembering where I lived, within a couple days I duly showed up as required and 2 minutes after I got to the front of the line my contract was certified.  But, that was just my personal change of address.

INSEE

You might remember that I did a post on the alphabet soup of agencies that entered my life once I switched over to Profession Liberale.  The most important one is INSEE.  Their database serves as the clearing house for all the other agencies connected to your professional French life.  Your postal change of address is insufficient for INSEE.  You essentially need to do a professional change of address, using this exciting form.  Send that in to INSEE, or if you’re like me and like to outsource things like this, you can simply ask your business accountants to file it for you before or after tax season.  For a fee, of course.

The Banks

I’ll start with the easy one first.  My French business bank is BNP Paribas.  I opened it post-FATCA, but I had been in France for years at that point and I had a working visa, so despite the extra forms I had to fill out as a “US person” the account was opened without question on my first visit.  Additionally, BNP Paribas has amazing tools (disclosure: I’ve done some contract work for them so I really got some insight into how tech-forward they are) and technology and it showed in this simple desire to change my address.

I was able to change my address inside the online banking suite within two minutes.  I was also able to change agencies.  I then ordered a new chequebook with my new address.  This all happened with zero friction and to be honest, a fair amount of (pleasant) surprise on my part.

Not so with Societe Generale, holders of my personal bank account, and one of my very first “paperwork” experiences in France.  They required me to go to my original branch, in the 17th, with proof of my new address (EDF bill) that was from the last 90 days as well as ID, etc.  This only permitted me to change my address.  There’s no way to do it online.  “And, may I change my agency, too?” I asked in French with a smile, thinking, maybe it will be that easy.  “Non, monsieur,” she gravely replied to the lady who had dutifully stamped my address change dossier just moments before.  “You’ll need to go to that branch and request the change yourself.”  I laughed.  She was a bit bemused, but I gave her a smile and a bon journee and out I went.

I live in the 19th now and there’s a Societe Generale very close to my house, and I went there to request an agency change.  “You have to make an appointment,” the nice young man told me.  Of course I have to make an appointment, I thought.  It’s not like you’re my bank and have been for the last four years.  To be fair, this is simply politesse.  The new branch wanted to “get to know me” so they could serve me better, and to do that I’d need to come by, have a coffee, etc.  Fine with me.  I made an appointment and brought everything I thought I would need (and as usual, even stuff I didn’t think I would need) and fifteen minutes into our appointment he was on the phone with someone higher up asking about “US persons.”  I knew he was discussing FATCA stuff, but I was a bit puzzled as SG had been filing my FATCA paperwork for years now.  “I need you to bring your French tax return,” he said.  I handed it to him, from the pile of “stuff they may ask me for.”  “Okay, give me a week or so and I’ll get back to you.”  A week came and went.  No word.  I called and left a message.  No return.

I reached out to a banker I knew at my old branch in the 17th and asked her what the hold up was.  She made a couple calls and found out that the branch manager at the branch I wanted to transfer to didn’t want to accept an American into her branch.  The implication was obvious to me: she would have to do all my paperwork and be responsible for me and she didn’t want that merci beaucoup.  I laughed as the banker who had chased up the intelligence told me about her refusal.  “But you’re the same company,” I switched into English as I didn’t have the French to properly express my confusion.  “I know, I will talk to my branch manager to talk to her.”  That was four weeks ago, and even the friendly banker seems to have forgotten how to reply to my email.

I’ve decided to let it be.  There are only a few functions that require you to visit your branch (I’ve detailed a couple above!), and that branch in the 17th is in a lovely neighborhood, my very first one in Paris, and I can always find other useful things to do if I need to head out there.  But it’s just an example of two banks with differing approaches.  One, stuck in revered (and inefficient) Gallican ways, the other, daring to be a bit more Anglo-Saxon and customer-friendly.  One will receive my undisputed recommendation when friends ask where to open a bank account.  The other?  Well…let’s see if I ever get a call or email back.

As for that pesky French bank account question, I’ve been doing some research to get more updated information to you than I furnished in my previous articles here and here.  As an intermediate free solution with minimal paperwork, you could open a Transferwise Borderless account.  That will get you a euro-denominated IBAN as well as a free debit card so that you can start enjoying the privileges of a French/European bank account right away.  I’ve discussed Transferwise as an easy way to send or transfer money to France (I think it’s by far the cheapest way to send money to France) in the past but that assumes a European/French account to transfer funds to, and I wrote that article before Transferwise created their multi-denominational Borderless account (you can hold up to 40 different currencies), which is awesome (I have one as a backup in case anything ever happens to my French accounts).  Once my research is complete, I hope to have some updated options and scripts for you to carry into a bank with you to open your own French account.

In the meantime, remember to smile and consider: this is France.  This is how they do things here.  Love it or leave it 🙂

What I love about America

I am now, and always will be, an American.  Yes, I’m pursuing French citizenship, but getting that citizenship won’t make me French any more than it would unmake me as an American.  I know I will always be a strange creature of these two worlds, with vestigial influences of the country of my birth, Singapore.

In my travels as this strange creature, I discuss the land where I spent more than two decades of my life with fellow travelers and these days I often find myself focusing on its positives, rather than negatives. And truly, there are things I feel America has in exceptional quality and quantity.

National Parks

The concept of National Parks is one we take for granted worldwide now, but most don’t know it was something truly popularized by the United States, something historian Ken Burns calls “America’s best idea.”  Its first “public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” was established in Yellowstone in 1872.  The early advocates of this idea in America noted that Europe had cathedrals and castles, but America had remarkable natural beauty, still unspoilt in many places, and that those places needed protection and promotion.

President Theodore Roosevelt gave the movement (and the Park Service) a grand push during his two terms in office: 5 new national parks, 18 national monuments, and over 100 million acres of national forest, just to name a few initiatives.  Today there are 392 National Parks, monuments, battlefields, seashores, etc.  This idea hopped across the pond to Europe and before long there were legislative protections in place for what had existed under the law of common sense for centuries.

Can-Do Spirit

“You can be or do anything you want!” is the quote that so many Europeans have given me, in one form or another, when I’ve asked why they immigrated (or at least attempted to immigrate) to America.

To understand the attractiveness of this idea, you have to understand the “good enough” life so available in the most prosperous countries of Europe: single-payer health care, 30 days of vacation, and unbelievable benefits even for entry-level jobs complemented by a comprehensive social safety net should you find yourself unemployed.  Life is truly “good enough” in so many ways.  Yet, what America promises, to those who hear that siren call, is “more.”

Conversely, in America, a country built by immigrants of so many nations, the rags-to-riches story born of “not good enough” is commonplace and highly coveted.  Almost all Americans, at every socioeconomic level, know stories of those who have started with nothing or less than nothing rising to a life of power and privilege.  It is assumed and repeated in America: you can do anything you put your mind to, if you work hard enough.  The Europeans, in possession of elements of the good life for so many centuries, never conceived of “hustle” in its Gary Vaynerchukian incarnation.

This optimism is still alive and well in America, and is radiant enough to be seen and felt oceans away.  It’s a spirit that led me to build the businesses I did that allowed me to finally make it to France.  I believe in the can-do spirit of America and the promise of results awaiting your hard work, because I experienced it myself.  America does not have a monopoly on this spirit, but it does have it in abundance, almost as a natural resource.

Regional Cuisines and Spirits

One of the classroom exercises we had one day in French class was to discuss, in detail, how to prepare cuisines from our country.  My teacher rolled her eyes and good-naturedly prepped the class for “here iz how you make a burger!”  But I surprised everyone, walking them step-by-step through the minimum 3-4 hours necessary to make authentic Louisiana gumbo, with all the ingredients and care such a dish needs.  I love Cajun cuisine (and the accent!) and can think of so many other regional American foods I enjoy: fried chicken in Mississippi, shrimp and grits in the Carolinas, Key Lime pie in Florida, barbecue in Kansas City and Texas, cornbread in Nashville, deep-dish pizza in Chicago, street hot dogs in NYC, lobster rolls in Maine, clam chowder in Boston, and those fish tacos of San Diego, just to name a few.  These are truly munchables of my heart, to say nothing of the pleasures of bourbon, a quintessential American spirit that has its name from the French royal family that gave assistance during the Revolutionary War.

The cliche of “burgers, pizzas, and hot-dogs” is not untrue: there’s a lot of bad food in America.  But if you take even a brief moment to look, especially these days, you’ll find local food made and sourced with love and care, and you’ll find these dishes not just memorable for their flavors but delightful in their simplicity.

Osteo & Chiro

“We’re not covered by the French insurance system.”

I was only slightly surprised when my osteopath said this to me at the end of our visit.  As someone who has spent most of his life outside of a single-payer healthcare system, and has confessed that he only goes to the doctor occasionally, I expect to always pay a little something when I have medical needs in France.

Part of my lower spine had been troubling me for several weeks and my exercise regimen wasn’t helping it to heal – but stopping exercise, even for just a couple weeks, was not an option I was willing to consider.  In a past life, upon feeling this way, I would have immediately gone to my chiropractor in the US.  Those visits were covered by my US insurance of the time.  But I never had insurance in a post-Obamacare America.  I left the US in 2013, before the changes to the insurance system began, and as such, have no idea whether chiropractic care is still covered in the way it might have ben back then.  But whatever might be the policies of the US insurance companies, it seemed that chiropractors really didn’t have a presence in France in general, and in Paris in particular, and so I made an appointment with “the next best thing,” an osteopath.

What’s the difference?

The osteopath who saw me took a few minutes to quickly parse the two disciplines.  “It’s a vast oversimplification, but you might say that chiros are more exclusively spinally focused, whereas in addition to the spine we are concerned with respiratory and digestive issues.  We also won’t see our patients as frequently.”  She went on to tell me that the founder of chiropractic was actually a student of the founder of osteopathy for a short 6 weeks.  However divergent their paths are now, both disciplines are a reaction to “traditional” treatments of the time in which they were invented, at the end of the 1800s.

In the end, because of my travel schedule last month, I double-dipped.  The osteopath I saw in Paris made some helpful adjustments just 2 days before a trip I made stateside, and while I was in America I had 4 adjustments over a 2 week period with a chiropractor, including some time on a traction table.  On all these visits on both sides of the Atlantic I paid cash (70€ for my French visit, and $50USD for each of my American visits), as I have no US insurance, and as I said, French insurance does not cover osteopathy.  But, some mutuelle plans do.  Would I finally be motivated to get one of those “top up” plans that the French are so attached to?  Not yet.  But seeing both the osteo and chiro helped tremendously, and my back feels a lot better now.  I also managed to learn more about a field I didn’t know about and what the French system will pay for.  So, the pain was worth it, if only to remind me to be grateful that I live in a country in which I can easily see a doctor when I have a problem, and not pay an exorbitant amount.

Gas Pains

“Do you want an electric stove, a gas one, or a hybrid?”

My (new) landlady asked me this question over the telephone as we were negotiating deal points on the new lease.  We had found the current stove to be not-functional.  I paused for a moment.  I had really grown to love cooking on gas ranges in my then-current apartment, but I had also never had to set up gas for the first time in France.  While I always welcome new opportunities to learn about life in my adopted country, moving had its own headaches and my stoicism failed me for a moment.  She sensed my hesitation, “I don’t think it’s had gas for a while, but I can understand if you want it.”  There really wasn’t a difference in the price points of the new stoves she was planning to buy for me.  After a bit of hesitation, I hedged: “Let’s go with a hybrid.”  In this case that meant that one of the 4 ranges, as well as the oven, was electric, but the remaining 3 ranges were gas powered.  That was the easiest part of the process.

The detective work begins

In France a copy of your EDF (it technically stands for “Electricity de France” but may or may not actually be from EDF – more on that later) is an integral part of your bureaucratic life.  You can use it to prove residence and can use it for something as complicated as a citizenship dossier to something as (seemingly) simple as changing your address with your bank (more on that in a future article).  On the left hand side of an EDF bill (I’ve never used another provider) towards the bottom you’ll see something called, “Point de livraison” (PDL for short).  This is a 14 digit number that tells EDF exactly where your domicile is (and hence where their staff need to travel to).  Since almost everyone has to have electricity (not everyone has Tesla solar panels and power walls installed yet!) this is usually not difficult to obtain.  In the overwhelming majority of cases, your landlord/landlady (proprietaire en Francais) will have an old bill and can give you the PDL.  In the minority of cases where it’s not readily available, if you have at least the last name of the previous tenant, or even the last dates they were there, plus the street address, that should be enough.

But I didn’t have any problem setting up electricity.  I was trying to set up gas service, and for that I needed a 10 digit PCE (Point de comptage).  There had not been gas service since 2009 at this location and I had failed to note that while there was a “gas pipe” coming into the kitchen it didn’t look anything like the gas hookup I had at my then-current apartment.  Oh well, they would take care of that (I thought).  With gas last being used in the place before my current landlady owned the apartment, it was off to GrDF to try to find out the PCE.

Deregulated utilities

Now, let me explain.  GrDF (Gaz Reseau Distribution France) does not actually provide you with gas.  They are simply responsible for the infrastructure that delivers the gas to your provider.  If gas goes out in a neighborhood they are the ones who will fix it.  The minute the gas enters your house it is the concern of the “fournisseur,” or provider of the gas.  As with electricity, the market is very deregulated (the irony of the socialist country having many options for utilities whereas the US, which touts itself as very market-based, often has only 1 or 2 choices – if any – for utilities) and you can choose lots of providers.  I wanted to keep my life simple, so after we found out where the PCE was (about 15 minutes of questioning and digging) we ordered gas service, even as the lady tried to talk me into buying a bottle that I could manually attach and get refilled.  EDF serves as both the infrastructure provider and as a “fournisseur.” Hence, I opted for simplicity and made EDF the provider for both electricity and gas, not bothering to shop around because I felt my time could be better spent than comparing costs per kilowatt hour, and variable vs flat billing.

About 10 days later, I met someone from EDF at an appointed time who had a meter with him ready to install, but he looked at me blankly when I showed him where to install it.  “But, this isn’t right,” he sputtered.  After he spoke really quickly, with hand gestures, I asked him to slow down his French and perhaps assist me with a drawing.  He went on to explain that the meter had an input valve and an output valve and it was configured a very specific way, and that I could hire a plumber who was certified to install and/or work on gas pipes and he could help further.

Armed with the drawing, we had a handyman install the necessary pipes and reschedule a visit for the meter installation another 10 days later.  In the meantime, I was grateful for the decision to go hybrid, as in the absence of the working gas ranges, the electric range was doing all the duty for cooking.  This time the meter man came and installed the meter (you can see the picture, though I did go on to paint the pipes a few weeks later) and a short time later, the first gas flames were firing in the apartment.

One more thing, of course

Given that it had been a number of years since gas had been installed in the apartment, for safety reasons the city of Paris demands that the installation be certified, and about 6 weeks after the meter was installed and working, a functionary came by, examined the installation, gave it a score, and left.  I “passed.”  All in all, it took nearly 10 weeks to get working gas in the house for one single appliance (the rest of the appliances in the house are electric) but as someone who enjoys cooking very much, and on gas particularly so, the hassle was worth it, and hopefully, a lesson learned for you all as well: if you’re going to be installing gas for the first time in a while in your apartment, be prepared for some pains.

I want to take a moment to thank in particular my friend Jenny, who helped during a particularly painful appointment process one afternoon when we were shuttled by telephone between GrDF and EDF as each tried to pass the buck to the other as to who would make the appointment for the meter installation.  It took one hour in total and culminated with the “French blowout” of frustration as Jenny let one of the “it’s not my probleme” clerks have a piece of her (French) mind.  The French are not known to be patient in general, even less so with utilities, so I appreciated the help as I didn’t have the technical vocabulary to navigate between the two agencies.  Yet another reason it pays to have French friends?  To help you with your French problems. 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.