Three Years On, Part II: Changes

Next month I begin my fourth year in Paris.  I wanted to use the milestone to share some reflections on how I have changed and ongoing tips on how to make the move yourself.  This is the second in a series of four.  You can find the first one here.

When people ask me “Why France?” I usually answer the question in Russian-doll format – answering “why Europe,” then “why France,” then “why Paris.”  So too, when I reflect on how three years of living in Europe have changed me, I think in these categories.

PARIS

Cars: more than ever I am anti-car.  Paris has an outstanding and extensive network of buses, trams, metros, and bikes, all overlaid across a city which is eminently walkable.  I support the current Mayor’s ongoing legislative push to exclude cars from the city center.  Cars are not a divine right.  They are an innovation, and they need to be put in their place side-by-side with pedestrians, bikes, scooters, etc., not accommodated as the sine qua non of modern life.

Neighborhood-focused: in my first year in Paris I went all over the city to visit restaurants and bars to know the city better, until I fell into the familiar routine of most Parisians: staying within a 15 minute walk of my apartment.  There is a deep comfort and familiarity that comes from knowing your streets and block by heart.  Sixty-five percent of my Paris life is located inside 8 streets near my house in the 2nd.  I love that, and I love knowing all the nooks and crannies that make up that little world.

FRANCE

Language: with classes and study it’s not difficult to obtain a conversational level of French quite quickly – but beyond that you will have to study diligently, because if you don’t have to speak a lot of French every day, your progress will be slower than those who do.  I’ve learned to be patient with my progress.

Scale change: France is roughly “.8 Texas” in size, I often tell people.  I’ve gotten used to the idea that France is a “big country” and that Belgium is a “small country” and that Liechtenstein is a “tiny country.”  When I contemplate it now I realize just how enormous the US seems to most of the rest of the world.  And yet, as a believer in smaller countries (I believe they are more easily governed) I am ever more convinced that the US is simply too large of a country to be governed well.  It’s breaking into 3-5 nations would do the entire world much good, as the instant effects would be to end dollar hegemony and US military overreach.  It’s also the only circumstance under which I would ever contemplate a return to the US, because then there would be real hope for real change.

Bureaucracy: I understand the French completely in this regard now.  They want all their paperwork just so, and everytime I’ve had it thus, the process, whatever it has been, has been expeditious.  Fill out the forms and wait.

Dairy Snob: In America it is the cereal and snack isles that present you with almost limitless choices, though it’s all highly processed and generally not good for you.  In France you are confronted with that same panoply of choice when you get to the cheese, yogurt, and dairy sections.  The French truly love their dairy products, and most French cows are kept in the grazing conditions they have enjoyed for centuries.  You get to really love good butter, cheese, yogurt, and milk.

EUROPE

Guns: I have come to realize that America’s gun culture is a weird substitute religion.  I served in the US military and as such have, in the past, owned and used guns for range practice, to keep up my marksmanship.  But this whole “right to bear arms” is an irrelevancy in the age of drones.  Stockpiling weapons only makes sense if you’re:

a) paranoid enough to think that the government is going to come to take them or
b) stupid enough to think you have training, skills, or firepower to resist if they do or
c) you are willing to die for the abstract “right to bear arms” (whatever that means) which would make you a martyr for your gun religion.

Guns, in their proper context, can be an enjoyable hobby, like archery.  But in America, it’s a religion, and that’s unfortunate, because it’s pretty poor fare, as religions go.

The EU: I came to Europe as a hardcore Euroskeptic and lover of small government and nation-state sovereignty.  I was in Glasgow for the Scottish Referendum in 2014, cheering for Yes, I was in London for Brexit, cheering for Leave, and yet I live in France, a nation that was a founding member of what is now known as the EU.

I would say that I am still a lover of small government and would happily support Scottish departure from the UK and Catalonian separation from Spain.  Let them try it on their own.  The worst that can happen is failure – but at least it’s something ventured.

And yet, I see that the EU does do good.  I accept that it has played a role in keeping the peace, but it must share credit at least equally with NATO, which has more than words to back itself up.  If the EU is to succeed (and I’m not opposed to its success) its future might lie in a two-tier approach – one in which there is tighter, deeper cooperation – for example with France, Benelux, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, in which there is an integrated government, executive, and judiciary, and a second tier which is the greater EU, which would lie outside a currency union but exist in a free trade zone with some limitations on freedom of movement.  This would allow countries to sign up for more Europe or less Europe, and it would be better than the current “one size fits all” absurdity that puts Greece in a currency union with Germany.  The world is changing and the EU too must change if it wants to not just survive, but thrive.  Hence I remain a Euroskeptic…of the current iteration of the EU.  Hopefully it can change, especially as Brexit negotiations will lead to existential questions.

Pace of Travel: When I was a tourist visiting Europe from the States, and even in my first year here, I was in a frantic “see all the things” mode.  Who knew when I would be in Europe again, I thought to myself, so why not go at a breakneck pace?  But when you live here you realize it’s all within reach, be it a 10€ bus ticket, 25€ train ride, or 50€ flight.  And, should you keep your health and wits about you, it will continue to endure and be there for you.  So, when my friends come to visit, I try to slow them down too.

Pace of Life: This is perhaps the most wonderful thing about my life in Europe.  I’m a business owner and have been for many years.  As such I’ve been able to take off for short and long trips at almost any time of the year.  But I could only do so with fellow independents.  In Europe, all my friends with jobs have plenty of vacation time, and as such we can take short trips together all throughout the year.  We partition life and work and leave the office in its place when it’s time for life, and vice versa.  Americans throw around the phrase “work hard play hard” but, in Europe, it’s just called life: there’s work, there’s life, and time to enjoy both.  No need to binge or “go hard” on either.

Through all these changes I observe that there is no “right” way to do things in various countries and cultures.  There are just different ways to do things.  But, some of those ways are better than others, and I happen to think that Europe does a lot of things well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why you probably shouldn’t use Opodo to book your flights in Europe

When I lived in the United States I unfailingly used Hipmunk to search for flights.  They use an “agony index” which scores layovers, price, etc. to give you the best option for your journey, not necessarily just the best price (you can always click “sort by price” if you want).  They also have a simple and beautiful design interface that makes reading and understanding the fares simple.  Odd inclusion these days?  Amtrak.  Expected exclusion?  Southwest.  But you can always search Southwest in a separate tab.

Hipmunk simply doesn’t work in the European market as well as Skyscanner, which is the go-to travel website over here.  Skyscanner searches an absurd number of airlines you’ve never heard of, and then proposes all kinds of itineraries that don’t take into account any manner of logic.  Oh, you want to go to Budapest?  You probably want to stop in Dusseldorf for 4 hours on your way there.  No I don’t…wait, I mean, I’ve never been to Dusseldorf…and it looks like the direct flight is 100€ more.  Hmm.  Maybe I could go to Dusseldorf… (not a random example – I did do this last year, and Dusseldorf is definitely worth a few hours of your time, at least).  Alternatively, you’ll also want to check out Skypicker, which dynamically shows cheap flights in real time geographically.

I was headed to Romania to see some friends recently and had difficulty finding direct flights to Bucharest, Romania’s only airport, at reasonable prices.  It was short notice and it was December, so I understood.  I spun the Skyscanner bottle and landed on…Munich or Frankfurt for 8 hours on the way.  I polled my friends in a large facebook travel group and the vote was unanimously Munich.  Done.

I booked the ticket through Opodo for seats on Lufthansa.  Wait, what?  Why didn’t you go to Lufthansa?  Well I would have, but it wasn’t an option at that pricepoint.  Skyscanner lists a number of resellers of varying levels of excellence which have bought seats in advance for the express purpose of reselling them.

Some you will recognize – Expedia, for example.  Others, you will never have heard of, but like most Americans, will cautiously use because no one ever cheats you on the internet for flights, right?  I had used Opodo before, I think, with no serious issue.  I can also vouch for travelgenio/travel2be, though they look shady and my bank initially denied my purchase due to “high fraud with that site” they told me later.

Anyway, I paid for the flight through Opodo, got a confirmation number via Lufthansa, and even went into Lufthansa’s system with the confirmation that showed that yes, indeed, I had a flight to and from Bucharest from Roissy (Paris CDG).

Until I didn’t.

I was in my online banking website, preparing for a meeting with my accountant when I noticed that Opodo had refunded all but $5 of my ticket.  Hmmm.  I called Lufthansa after a login to their system revealed my return flight still, but no outbound flight.  In its place was an ominous error message: there has been a change in your reservation.  I explained all this to the bemused customer service agent, who, after conferring with her supervisor, informed me that the reservation number was simply a hold.  No ticket number had been issued.

I checked my email and nothing had been sent to me from Lufthansa or Opodo.  Four days before my flight and I had been dropped without notice – not even an email – and I only noticed because I was, by chance, looking at one of my accounts in online banking.

Opodo – which seems to be run like a vending machine – great when it works, but useless when it doesn’t –  at the time simply had an FAQ page where there should have been a “contact us.”  As of January 2016 they’ve added an actual phone number on the site.  That’s at least some progress.

I didn’t want to bother over an issue of $5, which they had effectively stolen.  I did another search on skyscanner, but this time I did a quick cross-check in my travel email for an aggregator that I had successfully used in the past – travelgenio won that lottery – and I booked my ticket.  Again.

And now I’m telling you this story over dessert in a cafe in Munich.

I should note I’ve successfully used Opodo at least twice in the past, but such a catastrophic letdown, which led to me re-buying the exact same ticket I had bought originally, but this time for 50€ more, is a dealbreaker…and I didn’t want any of you to make the same mistake when you take your casual trips around the continent.  And trust me, mine isn’t an isolated tale.  These guys are muppets.

If you have any resellers your really like or have good experiences with, please share them with us in the comments.

 

You can(‘t) go home again

“What do you miss the most?”  My friends smile, anticipating a favorite dish, a favorite place, or a particular time of year.  “Well, you guys, of course,” I say quickly, hoping to deflect the question from my true answer: “Nothing.”

Of course there are things that are wonderful that one could miss – but I “miss” them in the same way that I “miss” anything from a place I have been to – like missing dim sum in Hong Kong or missing walking the beaches of Sydney.  But I don’t miss anything in the “think about it all the time” way that I think they probably mean.  But in fairness to a country that played host to many happy years of my life, I miss walks in the Huntington Gardens in California.  Food trucks in Austin.  Baseball in Saint Louis.  Hot chicken in Nashville.  The squares of Savannah.  BYOB restaurants in Montreal.  Autumn in New Hampshire.

Next month will mark the beginning of my third year in Paris and I’m “in between.”  America is no longer “home” for many reasons but I still can’t believe I really get to call this place home.  I’m Parisian in my bones – in a way I always have been – and I marvel every day that I get to live in my dream city.  I’ve often been alone on a quiet street and stifled a laugh as I took in that crooked winding view of centuries.  Two years on, I still have “pinch me” moments.

Going to the United States has become a rather elaborate production.  As part of my visa requirements, I have to spend at least 270 days a year in France, so you can’t go back for too long – but if you’re going to cross an ocean, it’s 3 weeks’ minimum for me.  I’ve also hit upon the strategy of visiting my friends and family during “non-holiday” periods so I don’t have to share them with other commitments they have.  I’ve also find this makes for finding absurdly cheap flights (I just booked the cheapest Europe-America flight of my life recently).

I haven’t yet chosen to ditch 7 years of medical/dental/accounting services and technology and occasional travel stateside means I don’t have to.  The PPO (insurance plan) I once had in the United States cost $135/month and covered me for pretty much everything for years.  The “affordable care act” in America has not only cancelled that plan, but the closest current equivalent costs $570/month.  So I just pay cash to see my old doctors for my annual checkup, etc.

Dental insurance remains extremely reasonable ($35/month in my case) so it’s cheaper to retain it solely for your cleanings twice a year.  Just those two cleanings will cost more in cash than the entire annual premium for your insurance – and that’s assuming you have no other problems.  Do the math.

I couldn’t help but laugh at the times I would put a car into park and then stare mutely at the dashboard, wondering if I hadn’t forgotten to do something.  Not driving for months and months makes you a bit cagey when you do finally slip behind the wheel again.

***

The more assertive variation on the question “What do you miss?” is “When are you coming back?”  This led to a very long and fruitful exchange with a close friend in which I enunciated advantages I have now that effectively prevent me from returning to the United States for the foreseeable future.

  1. Physical health – I finally gave in and got a fitbit to document what I’ve always suspected: I walk a moving average of 10 km/day.  I do this at various speeds, up and down stairs, on cobblestones or grass, all around this city.  Not only did this regime of walking contribute to my losing 30 lbs/13 kg when I moved here, but it has established a new weight standard which would be impossible for me to retain in most American cities.  During my recent visit to Kansas City, I experimented by refusing to take and elevators and as often as I could remember I parked my vehicle as far away from a store entrance as possible.  I even tried not to use carts to carry my purchases.  With these “extreme” measures I couldn’t even get close to 4km/day as an average.  I’m simply healthier here in Europe.
  2. Access to Europe – I used to treasure an annual trip to Europe to see places new and old.  But now that I live here, all of Europe is at my doorstep, for pennies, either by flight, train, bus, or ridesharing (think uber but for long distances).  When living in America I experienced a variation on these sorts of fun possibilities only during my two years in New Hampshire, when Boston, Philly, NYC, and even Montreal were just road trips away, and in some cases, by train or bus too!  On this recent trip I had some business up by Chicago and elected to take the train (Amtrak) but perhaps had forgotten that there’s only one departure a day and when it gets delayed, it really gets delayed.  An engine on the train coming to Kansas City blew up in Arizona and they had to run another engine out there from California.  It delayed my journey by 7 hours and Amtrak had to pay to transport me to and from a hotel and put me up in it so I could connect to the bus to Rockford in the morning.  Not too shabby a recovery from the taxpayer-supported Amtrak, but a far cry from the dozens of departures and arrivals all around Europe every day.
  3. Constant challenge of language – Every day I make progress in French, but my work and life brings me into contact with the whole world.  During the summer I had a date with a Brazilian girl who didn’t speak English and we laughed our way through our makeshift Spanish and an occasional assist from Google Translate.  Expressing yourself in a foreign language is one of the most difficult, fun, rewarding, humbling, and interesting experiences in life.  You get opportunities like that every day here.
  4. A built life – Next year I transition from my visitor visa to one that puts me on the path to citizenship.  I continue to maintain that the EU passport is simply the most valuable passport obtainable by the average person in the world.  The only ones more valuable are the Vatican and Swiss passports – and they are very, very difficult to obtain for various reasons (as an aside I was recently asked at a dinner party what I liked most about having an American passport and I replied that it was the knowledge that Navy Seals will come for me if Somali pirates ever commandeer a vessel I’m on.  I’m sorry, no country can top that!).  I’ve started something wonderful here, and it would be nuts to leave it – especially when I’ve gone through all the hard stuff.  Indeed, as I looked over the list of requirements for my dossier for my new visa – which will be far more difficult to obtain than the visitor one – I said to a friend, “Is this it?”  The list had 28 requirements.  I realized after 2 years I am simply unfazed by the French government.

So my answer to my friend was, “Why would I come back?  I’m healthier and happier than I have been for many years, possibly more than I have ever been in my life.”

The caveat is, of course, family.  My nieces and nephews continue to grow by leaps and bounds and I measure their skill in their improvements in art and coloring, parcheesi, and sports.

On more than one occasion I’ve heard someone say, “I have to live here, because I love my family.”  I get that, I truly do.  But ultimately I moved because I placed my happiness first.  Of course I’m happy when I am with my family – but I know that part of the reason I get to contribute to their lives, bring them presents from all around the world, and share great stories with them, is precisely because I’ve built and chosen an intentional path for my life that doesn’t defer a dream life to some unknown future that no one has guaranteed that I will live to obtain.

There’s no right answer here and I’m not proposing that I have the right one.  I can only say that I can spend more quality time with my family now – and treasure it more deeply – because I know our opportunities are so precious and limited – and because I am well and truly happy, and that speaks volumes to children.

***

There’s nothing more satisfying than waking up every day knowing in your bones that you are on the right path.  And while two years isn’t yet enough for me to claim “Parisian” status yet, it does feel like home.

***The picture is of one of the fountains in one of the many lovely squares of Savannah, Georgia.***

Absence/Podcast/A trip to the police station

I apologize for the very long break from the blog.  It was an amazing summer – my second spent working in the spectacular beauty of Switzerland (here’s one of my favorite images from that time).  I kept a journal, but didn’t have Parisian reflections to share with you.  But I am back in my beloved city and regular programming will resume 🙂

I’m not yet certain if I will continue a podcast for the blog next season – but episode 2 was on the “Au Pair life.”  Take a listen here.

Finally, on my travels I was stupid to lose my wallet, which contained things that were by and large replaceable, but which contained my French identity card, which allows me to travel passport-free inside the Schengen area.  For those who face the calamity of losing a wallet, in addition to shutting down all your cards and getting new ones – you need to go to the main Police station of the arrondissement you live in – ideally this address should match the one on file with OFII.  I have said this before but do everything you can to maintain a consistent address throughout the immigration process – you’ll be surprised that many gardiennes are willing to keep your mail for you even after you’ve moved out – if, of course, you maintained a positive relationship with him/her (who am I kidding, there’s no such thing as a male gardienne in Paris!).

Once you’ve identified which station is yours, bring your passport and/or another form of ID (remember the rule of always overwhelming the French with documentation, thereby removing their ability to intimidate you).  If you show up around 15h00 on a Friday (as I did last week), the whole process should take about 5 minutes.  You will need to clarify whether you lost it or it was stolen.  If it’s the latter, be prepared for a lot more in terms of questions (where did you lose it, what else did you lose, etc?).

You will then obtain a “récépissé de déclaration” which will allow you to apply for a new identity card.  Since I’m only 2 months away from renewal I’m not going to drop the 100 some euros to get a replacement but will simply wait to get a new one when I get my new visa.

What would you like me to write about this next year?  #YearThree in Paris begins December 11th.  I have so much to share with you but am also happy to write about your thoughts/questions/concerns.

***Featured photo comes from Daxis on Flickr.  Labeled for reuse.***

I forgot my passport

A huge pit formed at the very bottom of my stomach.  A hot flash of embarrassment started at my chin, ducked below my eyes, and lurched forward onto my forehead, spilling down my cheeks.  These physical reactions usually accompany the realization I have done something catastrophically wrong.  I said the words to myself, just for effect:

I forgot my passport.

I rehearsed quickly what I would tell my French cab driver, which would start with an apology and a request that he immediately turn around.

But my brain had already run ahead of me (as it is wont to do), presenting two factuals:

1)  If you turn around now, you will certainly miss your flight.

2)  On several occasions you have flown within the Schengen zone and not been asked for your passport.

This stood against the conditional:

1)  How do you know they will ask for your passport?

Since turning around to get my passport offered the same risk as trying to board my scheduled flight and being turned away (missing my flight), I decided to proceed.  My brain asked the conditional “but what about returning” question but answered it within seconds saying: “let’s worry about this first.”

If the driver had looked back during the two minute colloquy that had begun with that flush of embarrassment, he might have seen my furrowed brow accompanying my eyes glancing out the back window, moving side-to-side in a slow calculus, because surely part of me was wishing I took a short international flight more seriously than a bus ride.

Worse – I still didn’t have my permanent carte de sejour – I wouldn’t have it until April.  All I had was my temporary recipisse, which simply indicated that I would get an ID.

I showed up at Paris’ southern airport, Orly, about 30 minutes before boarding time.  It was a 07h20 flight to Rome.  It was my grad school friend Donald’s birthday, and he was due to be in Italy for a few days, so I thought to join him for dinner before coming back to Paris the next day.

As I passed through security the only thing they asked for was my boarding pass, which I was carrying electronically in Passbook.  I cleared security with a little bit of private nervous laughter.  As I moved towards the front of the boarding queue, I unfolded my recipisse and steeled myself with a confident insouciance (imagine a “What, I need a passport?” type of look).  The gate staff were really only looking to see that my name matched the one on the ticket so I’m not certain she even realized what class of ID I was presenting.  I shook my head after I passed through and wondered why I had been conditioned to think that in a 1st world country it was vitally important to always show ID.  Grateful for the nonchalance of the gate agents I started planning for hitting the ground in Italy.

Donald had booked a cooking class beginning at 10h00.  Since I was due to land a bit before 09h00 I knew I would have to take a cab.  Traffic cooperated and I arrived there and had a 6-hour culinary experience of learning, prepping, cooking, and eating.  It was lovely.

Since the theme of this blog has always been focused on Paris and France, I’ll perhaps share the details of the Rome trip at another time and in another place.  For now, know that I am writing this to you somewhere over northern Italy.  On my return to France the Italian gate agent had taken exception to my recipisse, but fortunately two (quite lovely) Russian ladies who also did not bring their passports had already been asked to stand aside while a supervisor was called.  I was asked to stand with them and we started speaking in French about the Schengen area.  “I didn’t forget,” said the older one, “I simply didn’t bring it.  You don’t need it in Europe.”  I shared that I had needed it in Romania, Poland, and Croatia, but then added, “but I’m not an EU citizen, you know, so I never go in your line.”  “Ah yes, she nodded.”  The gate agent returned and waved us through.

This time the cool wave of relief started at the top of my forehead and slid slowly and luxuriously down my head, cascading over my shoulders, and down the rest of my body.  I flipped to “music” on my iphone, tabbed to David Gray, put on Shine, and slipped my noise-cancelling headphones on.

***

Moral of the story: write a huge note to yourself of DON’T FORGET YOUR PASSPORT YOU NON-EU CITIZEN and put it on your computer monitor the night before any international flight, Schengen or not.

How to Renew Your French Long-Term Stay Visa

The heavy, ancient printer started printing my recipisse.  I closed my eyes.  Whenever the old printer starts running in a French immigration office, you’re in the clear.  I had done it.  I had survived my first year in France and I had just renewed my visa too.  The relief and triumph wasn’t nearly what I felt when I first got one or confirmed it.  But it was relief.  Palpable relief.  I could go on about my year without having to think about this again for a while.

Because I had originally moved to Paris in December 2013 my one year visa was up that same month in 2014.  Trouble was it was around the time I needed to go back to see my family, take care of some business, etc.  I could have chosen to renew it earlier, or I could have just chosen to move to France sometime other than in December, but there it is.  Think about where you will be in one year whenever you do apply for your visa.  I think December and January make a lot of sense for many, though, because the move has all the notes of “new start” and you give yourself a whole year of runway (although some of our readers need only two months!)

To be fair, I had to make two visits, because they asked for some things I didn’t have on hand the first time.  Let’s start with that list, shall we?  You can find it on the Paris Police Prefecture website, right here.  You can also make your appointment for renewal online at this link.  I should make the point that I am speaking to people applying for a long-term visitor visa.  Students and workers should consult their own subcategories when preparing their dossiers.

So, my dear long-term visitors, if you clicked on the link you came to a page that listed your requirements.  Let’s start at the top.  Notice that they want the original and 1 photocopy for each of these documents.  If you have forgotten or the copies get damaged there are large commercial copying machines that charge you 10 cent(imes) per copy in the vestibule of the office you have to go to.  There’s also two photomaton booths to take your pictures should you have forgotten them.  They honestly do have your bases covered here.  When I say “here” of course I mean this building below:

1212px-Paris-prefecture-de-police
It faces Notre Dame directly and is easily accessible via the Cité stop on the Metro.  Bring water, snacks, a nice book to dig into, charger for your phone, and block out your whole day for whenever your appointment is.  Some say mornings are better, others afternoons – I only chose afternoons because I’m not a morning person and in both instances I “checked in” an hour before my appointment which allowed me to actually be seen only 30 minutes after my scheduled appointment time.  Be early – or you may not even get seen that day.  I’m serious.

Paperwork you MUST have:

1.  A copy of your original titre de sejour as well as the passport which contains it.  This is the sticker you would have gotten on your follow-up visit when you first arrived in France.  For visitors your first year titre de sejour resides simply in your passport.  Come renewal time, you actually get issued a card.

2.  Your birth certificate.  You’ll need a certified French translation of it.  Mine was written in English by the Singaporean government and the French translation cost 72€.  If you need the translator’s contact info, simply ask me.

So, about that birth certificate.  If you’re like me, you keep all your important documents in a folder somewhere.  The trouble was, up to the point when my eyes first looked upon these requirements, I thought I had brought them with me to France.  My birth certificate, immunization record, baptismal certificate, all that jazz.  After the search that starts with, “I’m sure it’s around here somewhere,” turned to, “Goodness, did I actually not bring it to France?” I ended with the eye-closed panic of, “Oh no, it must be with my stuff in storage.”

Before I went to the nuclear option of having to order new copies I called up reliable people in my life – a business partner, a sister, and my mother: “Did I leave any documents with you or do you happen to have a copy of my birth certificate?”  They all replied in the negative.

The boxes of “stuff” that comprised my life when I had an enormous townhome in the United States were currently peacefully residing in the spare room of a dear friend in Kansas City.  It was already enough that he was storing these things for me at no charge.  I wasn’t going to ask him to do the dreaded task ahead: go through all the boxes looking for a manilla or green folder that has a bunch of important documents in it.

Who could I call?  My ex-girlfriend.  I know, this sounds odd, but hear me out.  She is one of the sweetest, best girls I’ve ever dated and she can tell you herself that the move to Paris was perhaps the biggest reason we broke up.  So, could she now assist me in helping to prolong said stay in Paris?  Yes, she’s actually that awesome.

After work one day she drove 30 minutes to my friend’s house and audibly inhaled when she saw the roughly 20 boxes and rubbermaid tubs she had committed to going through.  She called me.  “You’re kidding, right?”  Chagrined, I replied, “Look, if you find it, great.  If you don’t find it, I still owe you.”  Various words of affection were exchanged and she commenced.  Two hours later, no dice.  She hadn’t found it.  (Postscript to the story: when I visited last month to clear out those boxes I found the documents, in a green folder, in a box closest to the doorway.  It might have been in a state of fatigue that she missed the closest possible option.)

So I was officially out of luck, and given that I had only pulled up the requirements 6 weeks before renewal (how hard could it be, right?  Wrong!) I now had to convince either the American government or the Singaporean government to get me a certified copy of my birth certificate.  Why would both of them have one?  Well, I was born in Singapore, so that’s why the Singaporean government would have one.  But I was born as an American citizen abroad, by virtue of my father, so we had a Consular Report of Birth Abroad as well.  Either would suffice.  I decided to bet on both simultaneously.

I went to the American Embassy the Monday after Meghan’s unsuccessful search and got a notarization for a request for the certified copy of my consular report.  I enclosed an American check with the $14.95 overnight mailing fee.  The Singapore process was a little more complicated, but more automated.  I would have to request a copy of my birth extract, which would contain my birth certificate number.  Then I could use the birth certificate number in conjunction with other documents to request a certified copy of my birth certificate.

What had my failure to bring this single document to France with me cost, apart from the emotional distress of waiting?  Roughly 300USD.  So, don’t forget, kids.

Ultimately, Singapore won my bet.  A registered letter containing my birth certificate arrived the day before my appointment at the Prefecture.  The American one had arrived at my American post office box (I use US Global Mail to receive mail and packages while I’m in Europe) a day before but because it was around the Thanksgiving holiday I would not get it overnighted to Europe in time.  And you can’t ask them to ship your certificate outside the US.

3.  3 photos of standard size.  As I said in previous articles, you can find these literally all around Paris and even if you don’t, they have two machines out in the vestibule you can use.  5 euros gets you 5 photos.  Keep the photos.  You’ll need them for other documents and applications while here.

4.  If you are married or have children you will need proof of marriage as well as the birth certificates for your whole family.

5.  EDF or QDL.  EDF is short for “Electricité de France,” the monopoly state-run organization who provides you with a bill you can use for pretty much EVERYTHING in France.  If you rent, like I do, you might not get an EDF, so you’ll bring an up-to-date Quittance de Loyer which is simply proof from your landlord that you are paying rent and have done so faithfully, etc.

So those are the basics for all visas.  Now, let’s look at page 2 and what we long-term visitors additionally need.

6.  12 months of bank statements.  I hope you saved yours or get them digitally.  These should come from a French bank account and you need to ensure that you are not receiving any income from any French companies.  Make sure any wire transfers that come in come from a corresponding account in your name.  Remember that you signed an attestation when you got your visa that you would not do work while here and the careless forgot that (or just stupidly got jobs) and the careful civil servant may look at your statements line-by-line.  All my paperwork had been in order up to this point so when my agent started flipping through my bank statements she looked up and asked, “where do you get your money?”  “I tutor on the internet and I also write.”  She nodded, flipped through to October 2014, which was the last statement I could provide, and promptly turned them all over to her “done” pile.  If you don’t have sufficient cash flows in said bank account (they like to see a minimum of 1.5-2k € a month of revenue) you may have to produce other evidence of means – be it a savings account, etc.  As I’ve written before, a simple letter from your bank will not be sufficient.  They will want statements.  (A previous version of this article implied that your foreign, i.e. non-French, account would be sufficient, but that is not the case anymore.  They want to see a French bank account for renewal.  If you have experienced otherwise for a renewal of this visa, please share with us in the comments.)

7.  Health Insurance.  When I was in America, it was okay to provide proof for this in English.  Not now.  You’re in France now, so just as my birth certificate needed an official translation, I needed one for my medical policy as well.  I had originally selected Cigna Global and while I only found out later that they did have French translations of all the relevant documents, the agent on the phone told me that the “front page” of declarations would be sufficient.  Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t.  The cost of translating my whole policy would have been more than simply buying a French policy of health insurance for foreigners.  So I did just that, and in my cancellation call with Cigna (with a very courteous and apologetic Irish girl) I was told that they did indeed have French docs.  Sorry, I told them.  Maybe next year.  If you want a French policy, I can put you in contact with my agent.  Great lady.

8.  Renter’s insurance for my apartment.  Ohhhhhh.  Well, despite the fact that my lease had stipulated that I carry this, I had simply forgotten.  This held me up at my first appointment and led to a “follow-up” at which time I would bring said documentation proving I did have it.  Rather than admit straight out that I didn’t have such insurance I simply said that I didn’t bring it, which was true – I hadn’t. 🙂  We scheduled a time 7 weeks out, when I would have been safely and actually back from my Stateside visit, and when I came back, having secured insurance (if you need that, my guy is great), I handed said docs to her.  She stamped a couple things, had me sign the document for my new carte de sejour and the old printer started printing.

What was printing was my “recipisse.”  It was a “temporary ID” that was valid for two months.  In two months I could come back to the prefecture, drop 106€, and pick up my permanent card (which I’ll have to renew again).  This was the final separation of my passport from the act of flashing “ID” when asked in France.  To be honest, my American driver’s license worked most times.  But if you’re writing a check, they will prefer a French ID, though some smiling and hand wringing will usually allow for the exceptional passport to be used as proof.

I was, of course, relieved.  I didn’t do this entirely by myself, though.  I consulted with someone who specializes in helping expats, Jean Taquet.  I first started speaking to him last year as part of a long-term strategy to build a business and stay in France.  If you want he will hold your hand every step of the way through the titre de sejour process, up to and including coming with you to the Prefecture.  It’s not free – but I’ll leave it to you to discuss fees with him.  I’ll also talk more about Jean and his help for those who want to make a long-term living here in a future blog post.

As always – remember that if you have your stuff in order and are polite you’ll have success.  Speak the French you’ve hopefully been learning all year with even a measured diffidence, and you’ll go further.

The Three Changes

This particular move features three major changes for me: a different country, a different language, and a different environment.  I’ll start with the last one first.

The City

I was born into one of the densest cities in the modern world: Singapore.  This tiny nation-state has 5.4 million people packed into 276 square miles (Americans might consider that 8.5 million people inhabit the 5 boroughs that comprise NYC, which sits on 303 square miles).  Singapore taught me at an early age that a city can be a safe place for a kid.  As a six-year-old I excitedly rode the MRT (subway system) by myself on Mondays when I had altarboy duties at our parish across town.  I heard different languages (Malay, Chinese, Tagalog) swirl around me.  I saw every color of person imaginable.  And the food.  Well, let’s just say that in 2009, my first visit back to the island since I was 11, I gained 10 pounds in 3 weeks.  I firmly believe Singapore has the best food in the world, and still do, despite living in the country that literally gave the world the word cuisine.  However, for all my love of cities, most of my life has been spent in suburban settings.

Because America west of the Mississippi was imagined and built around the car, my stints in Texas (Dallas), California (Los Angeles, Orange County), Kansas (Overland Park), and Missouri (St. Louis) all accepted as prima facie access to a vehicle.  The access to this vehicle not only defined your everyday schedule, but by and large, your entire lifestyle.  This lifestyle, the suburban lifestyle, while comfortable, safe, and warm, is a novelty in human affairs, and is premised upon the lie of ongoing, infinite access to cheap and easy oil.

The rural life has some splendid isolation and the city is a collective of the culture of a society but the lukewarm suburbs are no real part of either.  James Howard Kuntsler, in a myriad of jeremiads against the “noplace” that is suburbia, has made this case numerous times far more eloquently than I can.  Take a read through his Home from Nowhere if you want to be confronted with the (un)reality of the modern suburb.

This is all to say that city living is radically different from suburban living, in so many ways.  We can start with one of the costs of living: housing.  It’s almost always more expensive to live in a city.  A 10×10 room in Paris (I’m talking feet, not meters), as in NYC, will cost you at least $1,000USD per month, and that is with no promise of either a shower or toilet ensuite.  Unless you share a home or apartment, you will also be lugging your laundry to a laundromat.

But after you’ve exhaled, realize the disappearance, or the decrease, at least, of another cost of living: transportation.  I save roughly $120USD (accounting for exchange rates) by not owning a car in Paris.  I owned my last car free and clear so I didn’t have a monthly car payment, but I still paid $125/month in car insurance and at least $75/month in gas.  This is to say nothing of car washes, oil changes, tire changes, routine maintenance, and of course, annual registration.  I am now in possession of a monthly Metro pass which allows me to go anywhere that matters in Paris by train, tram, or bus.  For an additional 29 euros per year, I’m also allowed to use the bikes all over the city for the first 30 minutes of my journey for free (the locations can easily be found on Velib, a smartphone app).  I have never waited more than 6 minutes for a metro anywhere in the city, and because Paris is such an old city, it is eminently walkable (for an intact example of a medieval city, visit Assisi in Italy or Toledo in Spain, both of which can be traversed from one end to another in 20 minutes).  Because of its layout you often won’t realize that you’re covering 3-4 miles per day on foot (though, if you’re not used to those distances, don’t worry: your body will inform you very shortly!).

This foot-driven travel forces you to meet your fellow city-dwellers.  Americans prefer the quiet isolation of their cars.  They have their own agendas and itineraries that are subject to no one else.  City living doesn’t allow you that choice (well not without the hassle of traffic and not-free parking).  You have to deal with the homeless, the musicians, the weirdos, the deviants, the children, the elderly, and all the fascinating tapestry of humanity that comprises any big city.

What makes Paris, and some big cities, special, is the architecture and history all around you.  Architecture inspires and uplifts.  It’s difficult to walk by things like the Arc de Triomphe or Notre Dame, or inside any number of the hundreds of churches in Paris, and not feel inspired (well, unless you’re already dead inside – but even then these can provide powerful return-from-death shots).  The magnificence and beauty in those structures reminds the ordered mind that building things that are worthwhile in this passing world is perhaps the most relevant harbinger of the eternity that is ahead for all of us.

The last opportunity I had to live in a city environment was during the year I finished my MBA in Saint Louis.  I was in the Lou Monday-Friday and in Kansas City on the weekends (I drove the dreadful I-70 stretch twice a week.  I know.  Ugh.).  In Saint Louis I lived in Lafayette Square, near the oldest park west of the Mississippi, in the largest collection of Victorian homes in the country.  I loved it, and have always dreamed of a return to St. Louis since my 2011 departure (on a separate note, while beautiful churches on the mind, I believe that the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis is the most beautiful church in the United States.  Check it out sometime).

It is perhaps the parks that are omnipresent in any well-planned city that are the greatest consolation for nature lovers.  There are no shortage of places of quiet contemplation amidst the city that accepts 27 million visitors per year.  Perhaps the reason this change has not been so drastic for me is because I’ve always despised suburban life, despite having existed in it most of my life.  Humans have a remarkable capability to thrive even in the most spiritually impoverished environments.

The Language

The #1 stated reason for my move to France is and always has been to acquire an extremely high level of fluency in the language.  I never thought this could be done outside of an immersive environment.  I took a short holiday in London about 10 days after my move to France and I remember sharing with some friends that my French had advanced more during my 10 days immersed in Paris than in my 4 previous trips to Paris and my 5 previous visits to Montreal (all of which were fewer than 4 days in duration).  French, particularly for English speakers, has the double challenge of masculine/feminine words and unusual sounds.  Too often those of us trying to speak the language fall into the trap of simply trying to mimic a sound we hear instead of accepting that sound on its own terms (my classic example is the word “un,” which means “one” in French.  I don’t hesitate with the pronunciation now but I always did in the past.).

Perhaps even more fun than the disorientation of transitioning from being a native speaker of a language to being the primary school etudiant in another, is the cultural exchange that happens as you explain idioms to new friends.  These expressions don’t just define a way of thinking, but also can, in some ways, define a people.  Speaking another language also helps you realize how grateful you are for the fun you can have as a native speaker with wordplay, puns, and literary illusions.

The Country

It would take too long to talk about all the misconceptions the French have about Americans and vice versa.  That’s something I hope to cover in a future article.  For now, I’ll leave you with two important facts: 1) the first treaty ever signed by the US government was with the France of Louis XVI, without whose naval and military assistance the United States would quite possibly have never come into existence; 2) in the 1990s, Ambassador Walter Curley, perhaps on behalf of all Americans who have taken the time to study history, laid a wreath on the tomb of King Louis XVI in tribute of all he did for America.

While it is true that I love France – it is perhaps more true to say that I love the France of old.  As a monarchist I am drawn to the history of the kings in France while being simultaneously repulsed by the unmitigated horror show that was (and is) the French Revolution, with its disgusting tri-color flag, its monuments to murder, and its national anthem celebrating revolution and all the blood that flowed from it.  Even though France is now on its 5th Republic (apparently the kings weren’t entirely clueless) the French remain a people and a country unable to fully accept the Revolution in all its implications.  Over a million marched here in Paris just last year in protest against homosexual “marriage,” and a law just passed that outlawed “free shipping” of books in France.

Both of these events can help instruct those who are not familiar with the concepts of the two Frances: the two countries created within the minds of the French when Louis XVI’s head was separated from his body on that mournful day in 1793.  There is the notion of the “real” France, which is Catholic and royalist, and the “legal” France, which is anticlerical and republican (this distinction does not exist in Anglo countries, due to Henry VIII’s dramatic unification of the church and state within his person – and the subsequent irrelevancy of the former during the ascendancy of the latter: by the time it came to the founding of America the masonic dream had been realized.  America was a country founded on the absurd notion that God and His laws were a matter of taste, not fact).  While since the 1960s the “legal” country has gained a decisive upper hand, the “real” France still manifests itself in conscious and subconscious ways.  The march on behalf of traditional marriage is an obvious example of a conscious manifestation.  As for the free shipping thing, we have to go further back in history, and we’ll also have to cut through the lies you were told about guilds and protectionism.

“Protectionism” as it might be understood broadly, accepts the fundamental premise that those who are close to you – whether they are family or simply your fellow citizens – are more important than foreigners or strangers.  The subsequent principle that also follows is that money – the most important value in the modern world, can never trump that sensibility.  Guilds were a medieval expression of those principles within the marketplace.  Guilds helped to control prices in a particular trade or craft so that no one newcomer could come and destabilize the entire industry through disruption.  Innovations were shared so that the entire industry moved forward together (we see this in contemporary Japanese patent practice – all patents are published 6 months before the patent is put in place, which means all the competitors can adapt.  The patent filing is hence more an object of pride that makes the entire industry move up together rather than the ossifying force it can be in US markets).  People could come and apprentice in an industry (think internships, except you got paid and actually did work).  They would, after a period of time, produce a “master-piece” (yes, that’s where the word comes from) which, if judged worthy, would launch their own independent career separate from the Master who apprenticed them.  This also provided exit strategies for Masters to retire (there was a stream of capable people you had personal knowledge of who could buy your business or help you expand it).  It also provided protection for those within the guild.  If you became sick, injured, or God forbid, died in an untimely fashion, the guild would take care of your wife and children monetarily.  After hundreds of years of this kind of thinking you can well imagine that the French, despite being a host country of the European Union, find it difficult to shake off the protectionist streak within themselves.  Indeed, that is why Pandora, Netflix, and now Amazon’s free shipping, are outlawed.

France is trying to protect its market from foreign innovations.  But coupled with a largely socialist mentality of the past decades one arrives at a swamp of indifference and inertia.  The EU, a worldwide leader in free trade and open borders, is continuously pushing universalization “in diversity.”  The French fancy themselves part of this as well, but their protectionist practices in the environment of hold-your-hand socialism provides an environment in which the young French are happy to enjoy every American innovation while not having any hunger to start their own copycats, even.  The “anti-amazon law,” as the French newspapers call it, is coming into existence to protect Frances’ many (and lovely) independent bookstores, bookstores which are considered part of the country’s “cultural heritage.”  Free shipping from Amazon, coupled with the legally-mandated 5% maximum discount on book prices, gave Amazon an unfair competitive advantage.  And this was unacceptable (although don’t doubt for a second that there wasn’t some political payback involved).  But the reality of being unable to escape the French subconscious (sustainable and protectionist) traps the French in a self-satisfied dream of the past.

As with all rich and colorful dreams, the memories linger.  Effects of the French domination of culture through its cuisine, language, art, and literature, still linger worldwide.  But as the French celebrate the remnants of their past successes the world moves inexorably forward, led – for better or worse – by the country that France helped birth: les Etats-Unis.

It is these three changes – the city of Paris itself, its language, and its history within France – that will linger with me long after I return to the New World.  For now they are the changes I most celebrate and subsume myself in, because to understand the future we have to know the past.

Why Paris?

Once people get past the shock of my moving to Paris, the usual next question is, “Why?”  Perfectly reasonable question.

When I first started answering this question, I responded with, “If you’ve been there, you know why, if you haven’t, when you come you will understand.”  But in a country populated by fellow Americans, that answer didn’t fly.  I had to remember that I couldn’t assume everyone had a good experience in the city of my dreams.  In fact, the default expectation, over time, came to be that they had not.

One of the things I’ve tried to do when I educate people about Paris is try to point out that some of the things they try to put on the French or Parisians are neither “French” nor “Parisian.”  They are simply “city” things.

Take for example, the sidewalk.  In a city like Paris, where walking is the norm and cars are the exception, there are certain lanes and flows.  There is a “fast-moving” lane in which people who know where they are going and are going there with a purpose and speed are walking.  There’s a medium lane where people know where they are going but aren’t in a hurry.  Then there’s the tourist lane.  Maps out, smartphones in hand, with the pace of a turtle.  Hey, we’ve all been there.  No harm in it.  Just don’t be upset when people bump into you because you stopped in the middle of a sidewalk.  It’s not your yard or a garden.  It’s a sidewalk.  And you would get bumped into in New York or Chicago just as easily as you would in Paris.

I’ve also been told about how many people are there.  No argument.  Almost 30 million people visit the City of Light every year, on top of the millions of French (plus one more American, soon!) who make that city their home.  But that’s part of city travel.  You’re not going to really understand how and why people live in the chaotic and yet ordered mess ANY city is unless you’re willing to lay aside some of your (unreasonable) prejudices and (reasonable) discomfort to simply move forward and embrace the experience.

Another is the language barrier.  Yes, sure there are French who genuinely don’t speak more than a few words of English.  But many French people do.  Americans often don’t understand what pride the French take in their culture, nation, and language.  But this is because France (for now) is both a nation and a people.  America is barely a nation and was never really a people.  From the beginning America has been a mix of Natives, French, Spanish, English, and later, Africans.  If you can understand that deep LOVE for a language (which English speakers, who rarely take pride in their language nor study its beautiful prose and poetry – which can go head-to-head with any other language in quality, in my opinion) then you can and should understand that the BEST way to encounter the French is always to ask, in French, if they speak English.  “S’il vous, plait, parlez-vous Anglais?”  Phonetically this renders as “see voo play, pahr-lay voo ahn-glay?.”  If they say no, try someone else.  If you just go up to them, speaking your language, assuming they too speak it, it’s not just rude, it’s disrespectful.  This is part of cultural exchange.  Americans are so used to everything being done in, around, and for them.  Going to other countries implicitly asks you to realize that they don’t necessarily go in for that (and why should they?).

But here I’ve been going on about answering objections to why people don’t want to go to Paris, and I’m missing the chance to tell you why I want to live there.  I’ll let some pictures tell that story.

Paris 2009 Day 1 045

The food, of course.  The French take eating, mealtimes, and food very seriously.  It’s impossible to fathom the idea of eating at your desk, in your car, or from a drive-thru.  I look forward to breaking myself of those habits.

Paris 2009 Day 1 075 (1)

Seeing things that are hundreds, sometimes thousands of years old, staring back at you, with the detail and symmetry of a human hand unguided by computers.  And seeing stuff like this almost everywhere you turn.

Paris and Versailles 165

And seeing it at night.

Paris 2009 Day 2 022 (1)

The Musee d’Orsay – a treat for any lover of Impressionism.  Set within an old railway station, it’s always there for you to stroll through.

Paris 2009 Day 2 027 (1)

Or if you want to watch people do copies of Van Goghs.  Awesome.

Paris Day 4 061 (1)Did I mention the food here? 🙂

Paris 2009 Day 2 003 (1)Nights like this on cobblestone streets, chatting with new friends and thinking about your day.

Paris Day 3 017Days like this, when you have the joy of digging into a crepe with Nutella on the side.