August in France

It is quiet.  Wonderfully quiet.  Not just in Paris but everywhere you go in France.  On July 15th, after some national holiday that will go unnamed, the French decide that it’s been a solid 10.5 months of work, and that it’s close enough to 12 to round up and call it a year.  They depart in all directions, with a plan to return on or around September 1st.

Effectively this means you’re on your own if you choose to stay in your particular part of France.  90% of the local restaurants and shops close, and here in Paris, it’s the tourists who now outnumber the locals.  Everything feels slower because everything is slower.  Normally I would say this is in part due to the weather, but given the fluctuations of the last six months, I’m uncertain as to whether there is a correlation any longer between the season of the year and the expected climate.

My second card

The last card said “Visitor” and specifically prohibited working.  This one recognized my new status and interestingly was dated from the date of my follow-up visit to the Prefecture in April, not the date I received my first recipisse, in January.  This permanently shifts my renewal date to April, which is nice as I can now avoid the end of the year congestion that I have grown used to.  You’ll also see a new permanent entrance to the Prefecture at Cite:


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It ostensibly provides more safety via a double-doored security controlled entrance.  It’s just to the right, about 50 meters from the entrance you are used to.

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No, I’m not mad, bro.

Interestingly, the lady who issued me my carte took about five minutes (which felt longer due too the dread) rechecking all the paperwork from the previous two visits.  I remained stoic and impassive, and I kept telling myself, “Don’t sweat it, you’ve got everything in order.”  Sure enough, she stamped and signed all that was needed and that was “case closed.”

Please don’t make too much of my facial expression.  You’re specifically prohibited from smiling in official French photos. 🙂

Grand Train

Last weekend I took one of my meetup groups to Grand Train.  It’s part of an 8-year redevelopment project and rather than just have a boring old construction site, some smarties got together and created essentially a pop-up party that reminded me of the gently convivial atmospheres of the ruin pubs of Budapest.

Entrance is free and in addition to numerous train exhibits there are pop-up food shacks and indoor and outdoor seating galore.  It runs through October and you would do well to get in early (around 15h-17h) and leave early (before 22h) as it starts to get very crowded at that point.

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Outdoor Film Festival is back on…but not outdoors

La Villette, on the edges of the 19th, usually plays host to an outdoor film festival all summer long.  However, following the attacks in Nice, the Mairie de Paris laid down specific security expectations for outdoor events and the film festival couldn’t comply and it was tentatively suspended “until further notice.”  After a couple weeks of hand-wringing it was decided not to waste all the planning that had gone into selecting the films and organizing showing dates and the festival has been moved indoors to the Grand Halle.  If you want to join our Film and Supper Club we are going to watch Akira Kurosawa’s Ran next week.

Happy to be here

Despite this being my third year in France, this is my first full August in Paris, as the last two summers I was working in Switzerland.  Alas, they passed a law that went into effect earlier this year that restricted the number of non-EU persons that could work on temporary summer contracts, and my wings were clipped.  I was certainly down the first week I got the news, back in March, but the summer has proved what I suspected to be true back then: more opportunities would arise while I was in Paris, not in Switzerland, during July and August, and I would have more of a chance to explore parts of France that I have not before.  There are still two weeks to go before the Rentreé and I’m very glad to have these quiet summer days pretty much to myself (or to accompany friends who have never had Five Guys to taste their first one).

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.

Guest Post: Paris Greeters, by Craig Ziegler

Every now and then my readers tell me about something interesting that I feel needs to be better known and I’ll often ask them to write about it themselves.  Craig was actually kind enough to follow through.  Enjoy!

Before my last visit to Paris I learned of the Global Greeters Network, an association of organizations around the world whose mission is to introduce visitors to volunteers who will take them on guided walks, at no charge, through their areas and give them a first-hand look at the places they call home. I was surprised to see how many cities had a Greeters organization and pleased to see that Paris had Paris Greeters.

 

Paris Greeters works like this: once you register with the website, you can request a walk (they don’t call them tours) with a volunteer. After taking into account your interests, language preference, mobility, the date of your availability, etc., a coordinator will assign you to a volunteer who will take you on a walk through his/her neighborhood in Paris. You don’t get to choose your walk; they choose it for you!

 

I signed up and received an offer of a guided walk through the Bastille quartier with Francoise. Even though I had walked through this area many times over my 15 years of visiting Paris, I accepted the assignment just for the experience. I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.

 

I met Francoise at the Ledru-Rollin Metro stop at 10:00 AM on a Thursday. She was a wonderful walking companion and her English was excellent. Over the next 2 1/2 hours of strolling through the eastern Bastille area, she showed me beautiful courtyards that I had never seen, as well as artisan areas that dated back to the Revolution.  She was so knowledgeable about her neighborhood and she had access to all the private properties. We walked past a historic dance hall on rue de Lappe, the Balajo, that was closed that morning, but she unexpectedly talked the custodian into letting us go inside for a look around at this wonderful slice of Parisian life.

 

We ended our walk at the Marché d’Aligre, an historic, multi-cultural, covered market in the 12th arrondissement with an extensive flea market outside. She ended the walk there by telling me how proud she was that so many cultures lived together in Paris in peace. She believed that the market area demonstrated this better than her words could explain it.  Paris Greeters do not charge for these walks with visitors, but a visitor can make a contribution to the organization if one would like. I donated €20 and received an email receipt from the organization shortly afterward.

 

My walk with Francoise was a wonderful experience and I will surely arrange another such walk in some quartier of Paris when I return this year.

Postscript: This walk occurred eight days before the attacks of November 13. I wanted to contact Francoise after the attacks to get her perspective; the Bataclan is only 2.5 kilometers from her Marché d’Aligre. I didn’t have the heart to call, but I know she was devastated.

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.

Book Club: Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gopnik

My favorite book written about Paris from the expat perspective is the series of essays written for The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik that was later compiled into a book called Paris to the Moon.  As the book’s magical title promises, it is a thoughtful and earnest look at a city Gopnik never intended to permanently live in, but experienced more deeply in six years than some people do in a lifetime.  

Gopnik has gifted me with some ways to express feelings and sentiments I have in my new country, from saying that we “breathe in our native language, but swim in our second,” to his chapter on “Distant Errors” in which he deconstructs, albeit kindly, the French tendency to look at problems or errors as distant – as something external rather than related to their own thinking and behaving, to his explanation of “white helicopter” thinking among the French (in contrast to the American “black helicopter” idiom, which is a meme for conspiracy theories) that there is always the possibility that a future government will offer a higher pension and a lower retirement age.

Adam’s approach to life in France is certainly one I wish to emulate, though my French needs to improve in order to do so.  He is at home as the American he will always be, while truly attempting to live life as the French do, day in and day out, in dealing with strikes, by protesting the takeover of a favorite restaurant, by enjoying holidays enthusiastically (I wonder sometimes if the French love the planning and anticipation more than the holiday itself), and even in the ceremony of childbirth, which both he and his wife participate in.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the book particularly germane to the subjects covered in this blog: “Everything about moving to Paris has been wonderful, and everything about emigrating to France, difficult.”

As it perhaps, should be.  This life should only be available to those who truly want it.

Book Club: Eiffel’s Tower, by Jill Jonnes

“But there’s no such thing as Paris without the Eiffel Tower,” said my friend Florence the other day.  Locals have complicated views about the tower of iron, but perhaps she is right.  But the beginning of pondering that question should
start with Jill Jonnes’ fascinating book, Eiffel’s Tower: the thrilling story behind Paris’ beloved monument and the extraordinary World’s Fair that introduced it.

In this book you learn just how much it took for Eiffel to overcome in order to build this true architectural achievement of its time.  It stood as the world’s tallest building for 30 years, and took only 2.5 years to complete (perhaps one of the few French building projects ever completed on time).  In contrast the previous “tallest building” in the world was the Washington Monument in Washington D.C., which was half the height of the Eiffel Tower and took 40 years to complete.  Mind you, there was a little thing called the War Between the States during that 1848-1888 period of construction, but still, you can imagine many Americans, including Thomas Edison, felt a bit of envy to have the French claim a technological achievement before America did.

Edison was feted when he visited the Tower – he was the great man of innovation and ideas and Eiffel toasted him with champagne at the summit of the Eiffel Tower.  But he emptily boasted that for the upcoming Chicago World’s Fair that they would build something twice as tall at half the price.  The French raised their eyebrows, understandably so when what ended up being invented for that event was not some tall tower, but the Ferris Wheel.

Jonnes writes a compelling narrative, bringing all the characters together in a cohesive story that is, oddly, suspenseful, especially given that we already know how events turned out.  I shared this book with some local Parisians and they told me it forever changed how they saw and understood the Tower, which is just the sort of antidote you need, especially when you’re walking past the Selfie Nation on the Champs de Mars.

But perhaps you will be most edified to learn how well Eiffel bore up under the most vile and vicious attacks, before, during, and well after the construction of the Tower.  It is his entrepreneurial genius – something the French could allow to flourish a bit more these days – that is the true story behind this great little book.

 

The kind of afternoon you want to lose

Matt was standing outside – about to message me – but I spotted him through the window.  I was working at Le Poncelet, my favorite cafe in the 17th, the arrondissement I spent my first year in Paris in.  I waved him in.

Le Poncelet for me is a perfect modern Parisian cafe.  It has trouble-free wifi, a great lunchtime special, usually around 12€ (and is sold out of by 13h00), and an unhurried manner that never makes me feel guilty when I sit and work there for hours on end.

Matt and I met for coffee at 10h00.  At 11h45 he signaled for another coffee and Anne-Sophie (one of the four waitstaff, who, in addition to the owner, I’ve come to know by name) politely told him in French that they were going to need our table for lunch.  Understandable: Paris cafes are a sort of no-go zone for the casual coffee drinker between the hours of 11h30-13h30 for the simple reason that the cafe wants to maximize dining revenue by using every available table.  You can always sit or stand at the bar during this time period – the prices are cheaper anyway – remember that an espresso at the bar might cost you 1€ whereas the exact same one sitting down might run you 2€.

Matt and I had separate plans to go elsewhere and simply work digitally after our coffee.  I needed to continue to move closer to the Louvre, as I was giving 4 guests a private tour there that night.  We were not far from the Champs and I picked a zany and open Starbucks location there where we might chat in peace and not be pressured into more coffee.

I ordered an Uber for us.  It came 2 minutes later.  I raved about how great the service is in Paris, and he reflected that his terrible experiences on Uber in our city may have been a result of always needing to order a van (he is married with three daughters).

We kept chatting at our new location – where we watched a professional panhandler do laps among the crowd, all with a fake crutch.  He occasionally helped himself to abandoned muffins and juice.  Finally a Starbucks employee chased him out.

Matt and I were continuing our conversation – we had long ago left visas and expat discussion, which was probably the original premise of the coffee (I love to meet my readers in person).  We were now into the area of monarchy (I’m a royalist) vs. anarchy (Matt is an anarchist) and I was making the case that both of these systems depended heavily on personal responsibility.

We had almost finished solving the problems of the world when I suggested we move one more time.  Again to a Starbucks (I’ve explained before how useful they are as lily pads), but this time close to the central tourism office near the Garnier Opera so I could buy the Louvre tickets I would need for my guests.

We commandeered two seats upstairs (where we had this view), and got to work.  Matt got the coffee, as I had gotten another Uber to catapult us here.

Ultimately, I wish that kind of luxury that Matt and I had that afternoon for all of you.  Yes, we had work to do, but, yes, it could wait.  We were having that kind of conversation – the kind that many of us associate with a fireplace or a holiday or preceded by a number of adult beverages.  We were stone cold sober, in the middle of a beautiful Parisian afternoon.  We were Americans far from our old homes, who had intentionally created lifestyles that meant we could have this kind of rich and thoughtful conversation on a random weekday – a true sharing of ideas, not in which either of us attempted to “convert” the other on particular issues but in which we basked in the challenge of seeing things from another point of view.

When was the last time you had that kind of conversation?  I reckon you’re overdue.

Image from pixabay.com

Book Club: Notre-Dame, by Victor Hugo

So, I’ll be honest – this was the very first book I wanted to choose for you, dear readers.  In English it is known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  But I feared that picking a 450-page novel as the first book might discourage many and make you feel that I was being a bit too “book clubby” (as Literature majors are often wont to do).  My goal was and is to give you a chance to know Paris well through books, whether you live here now, plan to live here or visit, or never shall.

This book should be required reading for all Parisians, and the inadequacy of the English title has to be addressed first.

The book is not now, nor has it ever been titled, “The Hunchback of” Notre-Dame.  Indeed, I’m glad to see that in the recent Penguin edition there is a pushback on this point.  The story is not about a hunchback.  It is about the power, majesty, and importance of the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris.  The entire story is built around it.  At the end of the day, the Hunchback is just a character in that story, but he has been seized upon by Disney and others to be the protagonist in a story about not hating the outcasts of our society – when, laughably, this novel is much darker and less obvious than the after-school special some would have us believe it is.

The trouble with translation is if you get it wrong, you can miss an entire audience.  Sometimes those tweaks are obvious and smart: The Martian was translated into Seul Sur Mars when the movie came out here.  There was also the Kate Winslet/Josh Brolin film Labor Day which was translated as The Last Days of Summer here in France – for one thing – Labor Day is in September in the United States and marks the end of summer – in Europe Labor Day is May 1st and is a marker for summer’s approach.

So somewhere in the 1800s the English translators decided that because a title like Notre-Dame would lead readers to think this was a religious work (though how they could think that with Victor Hugo as the author, I don’t know), they went with “The Hunchback of…”

So, my complaint aside, Notre-Dame is, truly and simply, a masterpiece.  Not only is it among the best works you can read to learn about Paris and its history and layout, but as literature, it is truly great.  It’s part history lesson, part architectural study (via digression), part character examination (both of the French national character and of individuals), and part tortured love story, just to name a few areas that Hugo dips his pen in.

But what stays with me more than anything, and revists me often when my eyes fall upon my favorite object in my beloved city, the church itself, are Hugo’s words.

“…a vast symphony of stone, if we may be allowed the expression.  It is the colossal work of a people and one man, like the Iliad or the Romanceros, of which it is a sibling.  It is the prodigious product of the forces of the age in which the fancy of the workman, chastened by the genius of the artist, is seen surging forth in a hundred ways on every stone.  In short, it is a sort of human Creation, powerful and fertile as the Divine Creation, from which it seems to have borrowed its twofold character of variety and eternity.”

On the bells (which rung far more often in Hugo’s day)…

“This is truly an opera well worth listening to.  Normally the noises that Paris makes in the daytime represent the city talking; at night the city breathes.  In this case the city sings.  Lend your ear then to this tutti of steeples; listen to the buzzing of half a million human beings, the eternal murmur of the river, the infinite breathing of the wind, the grave and distant quartet of the four forests placed like immense organs on the four hills of the horizon.  Soften, as with a demi-tint, all that is too shrill and too harsh in the central mass of sound – and say if you know anything in the world more rich, more joyful, more golden, more overwhelming than that tumult of bells, than that furnace of music, than those ten thousand voices of bronze singing all at once from flutes of stone three hundred feet high, than that city which has become an orchestra, than that symphony which roars like a storm.”

On the fact that prior to the printing press, cathedrals were at once our great books and libraries…

“Let no one be deceived, architecture is dead, with no ghost to return, killed by the printed book because it did not last as long and cost more…A book is quickly made, costs so little, and may go so far!  Is it surprising all human thought should flow down that slope?…architecture will no more be the social, collective, dominant art.  The great poem, the great work of humankind will never again be built, but printed…When one tries to grasp a complete image of all the products of printing to our days, does not the whole appear to us like an immense construction, resting on the world…it is the anthill of intelligence.  It is the hive to which every kind of imagination, those golden bees, brings its honey.”

It’s by no means a short read, but it will be one you will enjoy.

 

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.