Losing at Home

My heart sank.  In the fan zone at the Eiffel Tower, tucked away behind one of the smaller screens I was standing in front of, the small group of Portuguese near us lost their minds in celebration.  I hadn’t ever been here before – in France, watching the National Team play in a Final – but I’d watched plenty of football, and given how the game had gone, I knew this was probably it.

* * *

The police were dressed in riot gear and were prepared for all manner of shenanigans.  What they got instead was a quietly compliant group of Parisians, eager to get home to perhaps more easily hide their disappointment.  As I got off at Opéra to change to Line 3, I observed a girl in her mid-20s quietly crying, the tears muddling the tricolor she had proudly painted on her cheeks that afternoon.

* * *

I do love football, especially the spectacle of an international tournament, but travel kept me out of France during most of the group stage play, though it did allow me to watch with thousands of Viennese as their national team played Portugal, or with the Swiss who live in Liechtenstein as they played Romania.  I watched the two semifinals on my street here in the 2nd arrondissement and while I was the only one in the entire bar watching Wales and Portugal, I had to make reservations and arrive an hour before the match to hold on to those seats before the France-Germany game, which was a treat to watch.  Further down the street is an axis where three sports bars are nearby and many people danced in the street to celebrate the heroic efforts of the French team that night.  The whole city was buoyed by it.

This morning its another Monday in what has been a tough 12 months for the French, and yet I sense resolve so often attributed to the British and known in their “keep calm and carry on” mantra.  Disappointment is part of football, but it’s part of life too – and those of us who know football know that Portugal was defeated at home in the Finals of Euro 2004 by the Greeks.  They know what happened last night because they were on the losing end of such a situation once.  And they came back to fight another day and won their first European Championship.

* * *

More than anything in these days of political pygmies, as we see Australia divided by a General Election, a narrow Brexit, and an America eager to shoot itself to death, we can enjoy a simple thing like a football tournament, that brings together people from 24 different countries, to cheer, laugh, learn, and cry.  Among much disappointment, in football and otherwise, there are always opportunities to learn and grow.  It remains for us to take them.

Troubleshooting: Bank Accounts

Some time ago I was sitting with some friends and the conversation turned to banks and bank fees.  Both of my friends shared how much they hated “establishment” banks and described with relish how they had recently “fired” them.  They had chosen to move on to the “internet only” banks.  One banked at Fortuneo, the other recommended Boursorama.  I was happy with Societe Generale and had long ago written off bank fees in France as “part of the deal.”  Turns out, as an American citizen, I don’t really have a choice.

I went through the process of applying for a basic checking account at both Fortuneo and Boursorama, banks that leveraged technology and virtual offices to offer low-to-no fee banking.  At the end of both applications I was rejected, in no uncertain terms.  Not because of my credit score (because there’s no such thing in Europe), but because unlike my friends, who possessed German and Czech citizenship, respectively, I was considered a “US person” for legal purposes, and was subject to FATCA.

FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act) became law in 2010 in the US but came into force officially in France this year.  It places an enormous regulatory reporting burden on French banks servicing US citizens.  The “budget banks” mentioned above do not have the means or the staff to comply with this reporting requirement so they rejected me.  I was told by one person in the know that it costs French banks up to 10,000€/year to service someone like me (a “US person”).  This is all because the US government is determined to get its grubby hands on every last shred of our income, even if it was not earned in the USA.

Now, even if that number of 10,000€/year is wildly exaggerated, something like 2,500€/year is still a lot just to comply with US reporting requirements.  When you keep that in mind, you can smile your way through the two hour process of opening a new checking account, as I had to do a few months ago for my new French business.  It’s not enough to sign a few forms and give the bank your money, as we often do in America.  The French want to know what kind of business you are operating, how much money you think you will make, the name of your most recently deceased pet, etc.

Part of this is simply a “get to know you” policy that French banks are encouraging these days.  But part of it is both French governmental compliance and now US regulatory compliance.  My poor counselor told me that I was his first “US” account and he called in backup from his colleagues no fewer than three times as unexpected screens kept popping up during my registration.

All in all, I was happy with the process and BNP Paribas offers the same level of service and convenience that I’ve become accustomed to with French banks but is (to my knowledge) not widespread in the US.

  1. RIB (releve d’identite bancaire) This is an upgrade over traditional “online billpay” as there is never a paper check issued.  The money leaves your account and 48 business hours later it is in another account, whether it’s the account of a friend or that of a regular payee of your household.  When you add a new payee you must key in a pin and everytime you issue a RIB payment to someone you must key in a pin.
  2. App-based verification for online purchases.  When you make a credit card purchase on the web you will receive a push notification on your phone.  You must key in a pin in order to approve the purchase.  Then, and only then, is your purchase approved.
  3. No ATM fees.  By French law, you cannot be charged fees for withdrawing your own money, even if it’s from the ATM of another bank.  So you can use any ATM anywhere, anytime.

It’s a lot of trouble to set up a French bank account as an American these days, but once you have that account, it’s a great thing, and it makes your life here that much easier.

Why so serious: French advertising

More and more American audiences are getting used to something that has happened in French movie theaters for some years now: advertising that has nothing to do with movies, but is cinematic (and often quite serious) in scope.  The challenge is that it’s hard not to laugh at any of these pleas for you to buy stuff.  Sometimes it’s just so over the top.  As I’m often the only one laughing when this stuff comes on I try to laugh quietly so as not to be the obvious American who finds it ridiculous.  Take, for example this ad for Dior starring Johnny Depp, which plays on all the mysterious and bad-boy tropes that the French love.

Depp manages to be Captain Jack Sparrow while fearing and loathing Las Vegas.  Oh, yes, and I’m supposed to want Dior after all this dark mystery.  Is this aimed at me or the ladies?

But, Dior has a diverse portfolio, and for the vampire types who like Led Zeppelin, you can watch Robert Pattinson:

Dior is playing the “get the girl” card that you normally associate with these male cologne ads.  Along with this, it’s now the mode to use English in your ads.  Witness this hilarity in which an advertisement designed for the French marketplace ends with a subtitle for the English catchphrase at the end of it.

Diesel ups the “get the girl” ante with Thor’s brother, Chris Hemsworth, in this ad:

Yes, buying cologne is now an act of bravery.

I understand I’ve only been focusing on the obvious (yes, Stephen we get that the French are into their cologne). But, coffee is also a pretty serious thing in La France. Check out this ad for Carte Noire, a supplier of off-brand capsules for the Nespresso machines (Americans know “Keurig” as the single-serve coffee machine, but no one knows what a Keurig is here, but everyone knows Nespresso). Keep in mind that Carte Noire is not even a Nespresso brand, it’s just a knock-off, and this is the length that they go to in order to get us to buy their coffee:

When I was first in France the famous (now long past) campaign of George Clooney for Nespresso was part of my introductory French language class, as it featured some simple subtitled text for us to translate and practice. I found the campaign to be funny, intelligent, and perfect for Nespresso. Unlike the other commercials I’ve shown so far, the series that Clooney did was all about poking fun at himself – he always thinks the women know who he is (and desperately want him), but they are always interested solely in the coffee:

For the record, this is my favorite one:

It introduced an expression that’s part of pop vernacular now. Clooney says, “What else?” and in French this translates to “Quoi d’autre?” and you can use this expression in situations and almost everyone knows what you are alluding to (the expression, as it’s equivalent in English, obviously stands alone apart from this ad, but the intelligence of the writers was in co-opting it).

So there’s cologne and coffee, and I’ll end my amusement today (and hopefully yours as well) with this ad for a famous French ice cream company, Magnum:

The French take this seriously. So, promise me not to laugh too hard when you watch it with them. 🙂

This story also appeared on Medium.

If you like what I wrote here and want to support it, consider tipping.

The Airbnb War continues in Paris

I wrote some time back rather passionately about forces conspiring to stifle Airbnb and Uber in Paris.  The City of Paris recently upped the ante by publishing a website that shows all the properties that are “properly registered” as airbnbs in the city.  Unsurprisingly, the French, operating from a cultural sensitivity to “denouncements” of neighbors during WWII, reacted strongly to this and labeled it a “rat on your neighbors” policy.  If anything, it will cause a backlash among even those neutral to slightly negative on airbnb.

To catch up those who aren’t familiar with the intricacies of Parisian housing policy, anyone is allowed to rent space within their own personal home, for example a spare room or a couch in a living room, provided that they either own the space or have permission from the landlord.  In one recent landmark case, an owner sued a tenant and won for letting out an apartment without permission.  The law additionally allows you to rent a space you don’t occupy for up to 120 days a year, which would cover a long absence from Paris (or several) for whatever reason.

The argument goes that these short-term rentals are changing the makeup of the city and of particular neighborhoods, and to an extent, this is true.  And yet, all these short-term rentals represent opportunities of pure revenue for Paris – everyone coming to the city is going to spend money and hotels and hostels alone don’t meet demand.  Indeed, Airbnb has moved the goalposts on what a travel stay consists of now – no longer prisoner to the social desert of a hotel or the social overload of a hostel, people can choose a third way, in which they sometimes have an unofficial guide to the city, whether that be as simple as answering a few questions before arrival or as far as leading them on a cool walk about town.  Airbnb is now saying, “don’t just visit there, live there, if only for one night.”

Paris is unlikely to get Berlinian about Airbnb, but given that there are fewer than 200 properties on the “official” register out of over 40,000 listings makes it clear that there is still a gap in reality and expectation between a city being brutally lobbied by the hotel industry (and a Republique that is insistent on taxing everything it can touch, and even what it can’t) and a Parisian populace only too glad to get some help paying the bills by renting out some personal space.  In a way, it’s time for the residents of Paris to benefit from Paris’ reputation as well – given that that they have to put up with (without compensation) a neverending flow of tourists  throughout the year.

For now, it seems clear that anyone who is renting out wholly unoccupied spaces on a short-term basis 100% of the year better watch out.  I suggest divesting yourself or pivoting into long-term rentals.  Otherwise, be warned that the city is coming for you, and it will cost you tens of thousands of euros if you get caught.

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.

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.

How to get a same day US passport (in Los Angeles)

One of the challenges of living in Europe is that you may get your passport stamped a lot.  I say may because there are times I’ve traveled through four countries and never been asked for ID, much less a passport.  But if you do leave Schengen (most notably, to go to the UK, or to the newer Eastern European members of the EU, i.e. Poland/Hungary/Croatia, etc.) you will probably be asked for your passport.  If you have your French carte de sejour (the card version, not the sticker in your passport one) you can sometimes use this in the EU passport line.  I’ve tried it more than once with success, and always had the backup plan of playing “dumb American” if it didn’t work. 🙂

This is all to say that my 26-page US passport was coming to the end of its useful life last November.  Though it was still 3 years to go until renewal (American passports are good for 10 years these days), I was out of pages for stamps.  Yes, I know, tough life for Stephen.  My problem was compounded by the fact that the US Embassy in France was directed to stop adding extra pages to passports on December 31, 2015, a fact I found out in late November when looking through their website.  Given that I would need my passport all throughout December for travel, I couldn’t spare it for the 2-3 weeks the embassy would need to make the extra pages.

By the time I had a moment to go to the US Embassy in Paris in late January of this year, I had figured out that I had to renew in person: foreign residents aren’t permitted to mail their passports back to the the US for extra pages service (which still exists there, anyway).  The instructions stated this in bold and the embassy employee confirmed it.  Again, due to travel, I couldn’t surrender the passport for 2-3 weeks or even the 2-3 business day expedite service.  My “I’m out of pages” reason didn’t qualify for any higher level of expediting.  And given how customs officials don’t seem to care about stamping over previous stamps, perhaps it wasn’t that big of a deal anyway.  But I didn’t want to chance it.

“So I should do rush processing when I’m in America next month?” I asked.  He shrugged, then nodded as he realized that would be easy.  I told him I would be in Los Angeles for a segment of my trip and he said they did same day processing.

As I got ready to leave France I called 1-877-487-2778, which is the number to make an appointment for passport services in the USA.  Since I wasn’t 14 days from leaving the US (I hadn’t even technically arrived), they said I couldn’t make an appointment yet (I found out later this wasn’t true).  She then told me to call back 14 days prior to my leaving with the date I wanted the appointment.  Alas, the next available time was while I would be in Kansas City for a week visiting friends and family – and there was no regional consulate there.

After perusing the interwebs, I gleaned that I might be able to get in with no appointment IF I showed up at some terrible hour in the morning (note: terrible is generally anything prior to 10am), but in this case it would be compounded by waking up even earlier to drive there.  I left north Orange County at around 5am to arrive at 11000 Wilshire Blvd at 6:30am, 30 minutes before the opening time on a Wednesday (normal hours are 7am-3pm).  The line was 30 deep already, but of the 20 only 5 were without appointments, including a couple who had their suitcases with them!

34CDFF27-8053-4707-9F9A-63B3FC925BFB

When I got to the window around 7:15am I got the skinny which the interwebs didn’t provide: no-appointment folks (like myself) would only be seen if they had proof of travel within 48 hours.  I was 12 days out, timely by appointment standards, but not by standby standards, which was only for the most desperate.  “Make an appointment for 2 days before you leave,” he told me in response to my stating I was going to be in KC shortly.  Trusting in the “we see everyone in line on Fridays” rule (my flight to Europe would be on a Sunday) I called the 800 number again and this time used the automated system to get an appointment for a date and time of my choosing, which would be the 18th of March at 7am.

* * *

This time, I left at 530am, with the confidence of someone who had an appointment in hand and who understood how the system worked.  Even better, I was a veteran of the French immigration system.  Did these Americans, with their simple and easy 5 requirements, think they could intimidate me? 🙂

Everyone lined up in the same place as before, but the line was longer as I arrived right at 7, not at 6:30 as I did the time before.  After a few minutes, the guard left the main lobby and walked over to that side of the building and that line and directed those who had appointments to go to the lobby and everyone else (non appointment peeps) to stay there.

Anticipating this, I had loitered in sort of a neutral in-between spot, pretending to look at something important on my phone.  As the line started moving my way I slowly ambled towards the main lobby to the line outside to enter the security check.  I was third in line to enter.  The French “lines are for other people” attitude was engrained, I guess!

I had my paperwork ready to go after I passed the security check, and 20 minutes and $200 USD later, I had a claim check and a 2:00pm pick up time.  The costs included a passport book (the super size 52-page edition, no extra charge), a passport card (used for travel in North American and the Caribbean: I figured why not pick one up since I was there anyway), and the expedite fee.

I got breakfast, went to the beach, about 10 minutes away, then whiled away 2 hours at the amazing Getty Center, just a few miles up the road, and one of my favorite places in Southern California, and returned at 2pm thinking I would simply go back into the building and high five myself after getting my new stuff.  The guard pointed me in the direction of a line that was three times longer than the morning line.

Photo 24-03-16 23 59 56

“But I’m here to pick up,” I said, thinking I was special.  “So are they,” he must have said for the thousandth time.  And coming back earlier wouldn’t have helped – a couple who came at 8 got into the line at 1 so they would get to the window at 2.  No luck – theirs wasn’t ready yet.

So I plopped down at the end of the line and read for about 90 minutes as the line slowly snaked forward.  As it got closer to 3pm some nervous nellies asked the guard if they would close the window at 3pm.  “We’ll see everyone in line,” he said patiently.  And it made sense.  It was a 120 second interaction for the slowest, as far as we could tell, and about 30 seconds for the fastest.  You or a designated agent hand over a claim check, show ID, sign, and get the passport.

So around 3:30pm I finally pulled onto the 405 to go back to Orange County, which most people know is precisely the wrong time to get on that freeway, and the carpool lane didn’t have it any better.

So, I “lost” almost a full day bringing you this information, and you will likely lose the same executing this, but bring a book, some snacks, a friend, and a fully-charged phone, and you’ll be fine.  To say nothing of the fact that you’ll have a brand new passport in your hand that same day.  That will make it all worthwhile.  Even the 4am wakeup part.

Featured passport photo taken by Lena LeRay and used by Creative Commons copyright.  

Bad information

“This can’t be right.”  I looked down at the address for the shop on the map: 250 rue de rivoli.  But I knew that address didn’t line up with its drawn position on the map I was holding in my hand.  “Oh well,” I thought, “I’ll go to one of these other shops marked as adjacent to the phantom one in question, even though they were 194 and 194 bis.  I was just past the Hotel Regina, which some might remember from the very first Bourne movie.

I poked my head into what looked very much like one of those standard money changing places I so despise.  “They take passport photos?” I wondered.  Sure enough, they didn’t.  The “helpful” map, which I had gotten from the US embassy which allegedly showed locations that took US-standard passport photos, was wrong on three counts.  Alas.

I wandered into a nearby copy shop and asked in French if they took American passport photos (slim chance) and they gave me directions to a shop that did.  Photo Pyramides, 14 rue des Pyramides, in the 1st.  10€ gets you four photos, and you’ll only need 2 for your application.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve run my poor passport into the ground with stamps and I need to renew three years early to make room for future travel in that time.

I’ve added this resource to my FAQ, which contains contact information for English-speakers in Paris for banking, renter’s insurance, apartments, cell phone and internet coverage, health care, taxes, etc.  I give this FAQ to all who use my consultation service.  This FAQ also features a checklist for visitor visa renewal and obtainment of Profession Liberale.

Moral of the story: trust, but verify.

 

Doughnuts, networking and other writings

There is just a little over a week to be involved with a cool new doughnut startup by (no surprise) a fellow American in Paris.  Check his story out here.

Speaking of startups, I had my first meeting with someone via Shapr, which is the “tinder for business networking.”  It was, oddly enough, with someone on the Shapr team, and it was heartening to see someone in a tech startup be so excited about delivering a great app, against lots of obstacles, in a country that has a long way to go to become startup-friendly.  Give it a try – it’s slowly rolling out in parts of the US as well.

I was watching the PSG Champions League match this week with friends and at half time a French friend remarked that the extension of the “state of emergency” had him worried about civil liberties.  “It’s like the Patriot Act,” he told me.  I nodded, and didn’t say much more, as I was in football mode.  But I recently wrote about this, and other themes, for an American magazine’s April issue, and as such, I don’t own the digital rights to share it with you at the moment, but I can share some other writings I have done following the attacks, like this piece for Front Porch Republic and this one on Medium.

I also occasionally answer questions on Quora, write on business themes on LinkedIn, and share my thoughts on where to eat in Paris and lots of other places on Yelp.