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.

Dating in Paris

“So, what happened with PhD girl?”

“The Brazilian one?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t know, can I ask you a Euro-dating question?”

“Sure.”

“Is it normal to have 24-48 hour lags between texts?”

Anthony smiled and laughed, “Yeah mate.”

Anthony belongs to a football meetup I run.  A fellow Arsenal fan, he is finishing his time in Paris and returns to London in March.  A week prior we had shared the sheer joy and shock of beating Manchester City, the reigning English champions, at their home stadium, the Etihad.  I felt just shy of a Cup Final win (which I experienced in London last May).

Anyone who knows me knows that I lose the ability to pay attention to nearly anything other than football (that’s soccer, my dear American/Australian readers) when it’s on.  But there were two pretty girls with American accents (sisters, it turns out) directly to my right, so at the half I chatted them up.  They were funny and nice, and as we bundled up to leave after the match I snagged Jane’s number (her name is not Jane).

I waited a day, then texted, just to say hi.  A couple days later the hi was returned with an apology for the delay.  I asked her to coffee.  Two more days.  “Yes, sure, when my schedule clears up…”  Two more days, and so on.

Now, this is just an isolated case, you might reasonably object.  Stephen, maybe she’s just too nice to say no, etc.  Okay, except I’ve also experienced this with a German girl who I’ve been on multiple dates with.  She works in a thinktank and keeps long days and she also has a 2-3 day response time.

“So it’s normal, then.”  I said after we had discussed the matter more.  “Yes.”

Text response time is quite apart from the normal change in dynamic that occurs when you date with a language barrier.  You may be able to express yourself very well as a native speaker in your own tongue, but you’re limited in expressing your views, your jokes, and your personality when her English is also limited.  You can only get so far in the B1 French I currently speak.  After years of dating pretty much only “American girls” (whatever that means) it’s quite a thing to be in a situation in which you meet people from all over the globe who speak every language imaginable.

Dating wasn’t even on my radar last year.  As an activity it’s pretty far up the ladder in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (in the “love/belonging” category) and last year constantly held the spectres of visa challenges, housing, startup, learning French, etc.  When you’re focusing on just putting one foot in front of another, you don’t have too much time to look up and see the very well-dressed and lovely international people all around you.

So – the 24/48 hour delay.  It’s a thing.  And the language barrier.  These are hardly insurmountable challenges if you are really interested in someone.  But I did find a carryover from my American dating days: the rule that a distance apart of more than 30 minutes by car = “long-distance relationship.”

As someone who has never entirely comfortable with American over-reliance on cars (I was taking the subway in Singapore by myself when I was 6 years old), I never wanted to spend a lot of time in them.  Indeed my final 5 years in the States I lived 200 yards from my office.

I had a wonderful couple dates with a Franco-Brit, including dinner at her place in the burbs, which included 10 minutes on the Metro, 20 minutes on the RER, and 5 minutes on a bus, when it was running.

She’s smart and a writer too, actually, but I moved here – to be here – in Paris.  Rather than resent her two months later, for commutes I didn’t want, I just reaffirmed the old rule with a Parisian twist.

Outside of the 20 arrondissements = long distance relationship

And long distance is something you might consider for various reasons, including having exhausted your local options.  I’m only now, a year later, meeting those local options, and they are pretty cool.

PS  I would add “outside of the arrondissements = what’s the point?” 😉

Mailbag #2: Okay, so how do I move to Paris?

Latest from cyberspace:

Dear Stephen

I’m sure you get a gazillion emails similar to this, but I had a question about your visa process that I was hoping you could clarify (which might have been a few years ago already!). I think in one post you mentioned that you applied for a visa stating that you would not work while in France, but then how did you eventually end up getting work in France, and ultimately staying? 

My current situation is that I am a freelance web developer in Brooklyn, and I really want to move to Paris (studied abroad there and loved it so much– I could not get it out of my head), but it has been difficult finding a job in Paris that would sponsor me. So I was thinking I could continue my freelance work abroad because I have a steady client that I work remotely for. But then the visa situation seems to get a bit tricky because I would not be paying taxes in France (a couple of expat forums were saying this would eventually catch up with me). I thought about applying for the Auto-Entrepreneur program, but I make more than the amount stated for self-services, which was around 35,000 euros if I am remembering correctly. So I’m a bit stuck at the moment! 

I realize that you are not an immigration officer, but any advice you have would be greatly appreciated! And again, I know you probably get so many of these emails, so even if I don’t hear back, I just wanted to say I really enjoy your blog and keep up the fantastic posts. Wishing you the best in this wonderful New Year! 

Mindy

***

Dear Mindy

First of all, thanks for the kind words.  It’s neat to know that people out there are getting help from my work.  You’ve got a lot of questions so let me start by giving you a phrase to guide some of your thinking: Le Gris.  It’s “the gray” in English.  Think of it as a giant “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy writ large against your French life.  For example, when you go to an appointment have all the documents that you need and then some.  But if they don’t ask you for a document, don’t give it voluntarily.  “More” is not better.  So too, I would ask, how does “not paying taxes in France” catch up to anyone who has signed up to “not work in France”?  Yes, I came here as a visitor, and as of this moment, I’m still classified as a visitor.  And that means I can’t work for a French company.  But I can work for German ones, Spanish ones, American ones, pretty much anyone.  I just can’t work for a French company, because that’s not the visa I hold.  I don’t see how the French government is going to ask you not to work here, and then turn around and ask you why you aren’t paying taxes.

Now the auto-entrepreneur thing is relatively new and I think you could use it to your advantage because yes, the upper limit is 35.000 euros a year – and I know, it’s dumb – that’s a discussion for another time – but why couldn’t you retain your steady client AND take on freelance work as an entrepreneur in France?  That way you are quickly integrated into the “tax paying system” (are you sure you want to rush that? 😉 ) AND you can keep your “day job.”  Remember the application is not asking what you make outside of France – France doesn’t have any claim on that income.  It’s asking you what you make or project you will make in France.  As of this moment you make Zero, but you can make an estimate.

You have what many people wish they had – a skill that is not geographically bound.  I’m excited for the possibilities for you as you explore coming to what I consider to be the world’s most beautiful city, and my home.

This email came in on the 13th so I’m only on a 10-day delay at the minute.  I’m working on getting faster! 🙂

Photo used by Creative Commons.  Photo by m43photos.

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.

NYC: Parisians’ Delight

I’m always curious to know what fellow Parisians think of their visits to my beloved United States.  Often they have been to America, and usually, they have been to New York.  Now, when most people tell me they’ve visited New York, I tend to ask, “where” because I don’t assume they mean NYC.  And I certainly don’t mean what Parisians mean, which is Midtown Manhattan.

While Midtown has its own striking features, it’s hardly “New York” and worse, it’s hardly worthy of the answer to my follow up question of “Why do you like it?” which is “Because it’s the most European city in America.”

The one time I was eating when someone said this to me I almost choked.  That statement is so untrue on a number of levels, and I usually have to ask a number of follow-up questions to clarify why my acquaintance or friend has come to such a strange point-of-view.  Some commonalities:

1.  NYC is the only American city he/she has visited

2.  While there, he/she never visited Brooklyn, Queens, or the other boroughs.

3.  He/she was there for a week or less

These circumstances, combined with an ignorance about what other American cities have to offer, or worse, an ignorance about European cities, inevitably lead some of these Parisians to an idolization of NYC which is unwarranted.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love the Cloisters.  And the High Line.  And Brooklyn.  The Park.  Washington Square.  The MET and all the things that make NYC great.  But it’s not our finest city.  That title firmly belongs in the hands of San Francisco (but that article is for another time).  For now I’ll confine my remarks to NYC.

The cityscape itself

NYC is part of an elite group of skyscraper cities, which includes Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore, and the like.  There is nothing European about streetscapes and cityscapes of massively tall buildings that create wind tunnels.  Indeed, in Paris all such buildings are clustered outside the city limits, at La Defense, as if to say – build these if you must, but please don’t invade our living space.

I’m not arguing that skylines need to look like Florence’s, where the majestic Duomo and the competing Medici Tower dominate and all other buildings rise to about the same level, significantly below both those buildings.  But NYC’s cityscape matches none in Europe.

The melting pot

On this point it’s important to note that London and Paris, like NYC, fall into the category of “international cities.”  Surely you will learn about England and France, respectively, upon visiting those cities, but if you want to really know Britain, you need to go out into the shires.  Or to neighboring countries within the United Kingdom, like Wales.  If you would know France you should visit Bordeaux.  Or Bayeux.  Or Grenoble.  Or Strasbourg.  Those are all “European cities.”  But they are not multi-cultural melting pots.

London and Paris are playgrounds for those of us who love to learn about other cultures, but as “European cities” they are outliers.  Most European cities have a dominant language, ethnic majority, cuisine, and culture.  And at least, at the end of the day, London and Paris can claim their own culture too.  But what is NYC, but the cathedral of change and the bastion of commercialism and the consumer culture?  NYC is in its own way, a celebration of no identity and no heritage and no culture because of the mistaken belief that since all cultures are “equal” (whatever that means) that a melange of all is a culture in and of itself.  It’s not, and the banal and ubiquitous “I love NY” shirts is perhaps representative of what NYC can be at times: tourist hype.

The cost of living

One of the magical things about Wimbledon is that it’s still one of the major sporting events that you can buy tickets for the day of, at face value.  You’ve got to queue, but that’s really a minor inconvenience. 🙂  It allows the groundlings to mix with the elite who never needed to queue to have an assured place.

A European city still has a place for the least affluent in our society (and I’m not talking about the homeless here: they manage to find spots all over the world).  Paris is on the margins of affordability, but NYC is in another solar system by comparison.

This is all to say that my fellow Parisians might look for some treasures off the beaten path the next time they decide to visit the US.  This HuffPo list might be the place to start.

NYC: hardly the most European city in America.  It’s not even the most American city in America. 🙂

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.