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.

How to get a French long-term stay visa Part I, or “learning to love bureaucracy”

You would think the fact that I’m conversational and literate in French, and that I’m a teacher, would alert me to the fact that as I went back and forth with the machinery of the French consulate, I would remember that the very etymology of bureaucracy traces to the French word for desk.

When I first started doing the research behind the visa I would need to live in Paris, I didn’t find much help.  About.com had a decent article, but it was from 2006, and who knew what had changed since then?  Here’s what I was able to glean from the web, before I made my way to the website for the French Consulate office for my region, which happened to be in Chicago:

1.  You cannot get a student visa unless you are going to school at least half-time.

2.  You cannot get an “au pair” visa – where you trade out work around a home in exchange for rent – once you are over the age of 26.

3.  You cannot get a work visa without a sponsor in France who is guaranteeing your job.

The last option, you have to imagine, for someone who has spent the last decade building businesses, was the least viable.  And so, I had to look at the long-term-stay visitor visa.

I received a one-year stay visa just a few weeks ago so this is not just a chronicle of how I did it for the edification and amusement of my friends and family – it’s also a how-to for those of you who are US citizens who want to follow in my footsteps to successfully obtain a visa and can’t get any of the visas I listed above.

Guiding principle when dealing with the French: be calm, polite, friendly and prepared.  And never assume you will simply get the visa because you gave them the form and the money.

Here is what you will need:

1.  A filled out application form.  That link is for the English version.  I decided to kiss-up and fill out mine in French (couldn’t hurt my chances, I thought).

2.  One passport sized photo which will go onto the application form.  You need to make sure it’s against a white background, captures your full face, has no glasses or hat, and has your mouth closed.  Don’t smile!

3.  A questionnaire – not to be confused with the above application – and this one has to be filled out in French AND notarized.

4.  Your  passport (you’re going to have to leave it with them) plus one copy of the identity pages.  I suggest you make a couple copies so that you have some on file yourself should some mishap happen.  This might also be a good time to make sure you have a passport card so that if you need to travel to Canada or Mexico while your passport is with the consulate you will be able.  This is mutually exclusive, though – the State Department will need your passport too in order to send you back your passport card so you would have to apply for it in plenty of time to get your passport back before your visit to the consulate.  Your passport must have been issued less than 10 years ago, must be valid for at least 3 months after your projected return to the US, and have at least 2 blank visa pages left.

5.  Status in the US:  A simple statement saying “I am a citizen of the United States.”

6   Letter explaining what you intend on doing in France.  I wrote a one paragraph statement that said I was planning to visit France and learn about it and perhaps write about it.

7.  Notarized Letter promising not to work in France.  I wrote a one paragraph statement in which I stated that I would not be working for any French companies during my stay.

8.  Letter of Employment in the US stating occupation and earnings.  So here’s where it gets interesting.  It seems as though the French expect that you either have a job or are taking a leave from a job in order to come and they want certification.  They are even okay if you continue to draw pay from that employer.  As long as its not a French company (and hence, you are not depriving someone in France of a job they could have) they don’t care.

9.  Proof of means of income.  They will want at least your last 3 months of checking and savings accounts, if not more.  How much are you going to need?  Great question.  From what I could tell during my interview in Chicago, they want your rent + $800 per month for every month you are staying, minimum.  So, let’s say you have a very small place in the city, like my apartment in the 17th arondissement, where you will pay at least $1000USD, add in $800, and that brings you to $1800/month.  If you want to stay for six months they will want to see that you either have that in savings or that you will earn enough (item #8) in combination with your savings to stay.

10.  Proof of medical insurance.  This one requires a bit more pirouetting.  You may not apply for a long-term stay visa until 90 days before your departure.  The company I use only sells annual policies.  However, the French are going to want to see full coverage during your time there.  I split the difference.  I got a policy that went into effect two weeks after my visit to the consulate, which was 86 days before my departure (I wasn’t taking any chances!), and when I sent the proof of insurance to the consulate I stated that the policy auto-renews at the end of one year.

11.  Marriage and/or birth certificates for the children.  I got to skip this one!

12.  Enrollment in school for your children.  I also skipped this.

13.  Proof of accommodation in France.  I initially presented them with an email from my landlady.  This would be rejected and a copy of her passport as well as her utility bill was asked for.  Have those on hand to skip my delay.

14.  The processing fee.  This will change so check here to see the latest cost.

15.  For those who want to stay more than 6 months, you must fill out the residence form.  You only need to worry about the top part.  The bottom comes after you’ve been approved.

16.  A self-addressed prepaid EXPRESS MAIL envelope.  Absolutely no UPS, Fedex, etc.  Good ol’ US MAIL.

Did you do all that?  Good.  You’re still not done.

Now you have to make an appointment in their system.  The French are not known for their amazing websites and often this link will not work, or be wonky.  Be patient.  Switch browsers.  Keep trying.  At some point you will get to the appointment system.  Make an appointment.  Keeping in mind that processing time can take up to one month, I would recommend that you have your appointment no later than 60 days before departure.  Despite the fact that I submitted my application at perhaps the earliest possible date, I was still incredibly nervous and stressed as the back-and-forth commenced.  I wouldn’t wish it on you.

I had no other business in Chicago the weekend I planned for my visa so I simply scheduled a flight up for Friday morning (my appointment was at noon) and a flight back Sunday morning.  I got a rental car so that I would be in complete control of my destiny on Friday.  Didn’t want to take any chances.

I had all my paperwork together.  Now I had to have my in-person interview.  Don’t let the word “interview” fool you.  All you are doing is dropping off forms, giving them money, and smiling for the camera.  It’s all very routine.  I imagined I would be asked all kinds of questions about what I would do in France.  I wasn’t.

I got to Chicago around 9am that Friday morning and drove immediately to the consulate.  It’s located in an office building but it’s accessible only by a secured elevator.  You can only enter the secured elevator with one of these

photo (18)

Half worried that for some reason my appointment wouldn’t show up in the system, waves of relief washed over me when the receptionist handed this to me.  I then went to have breakfast, came back, and dropped off my forms.

It couldn’t be 100% smooth sailing, for sure.  At the interview was where I was asked for proof of insurance – I had simply provided them with a photocopy of my American insurance card.  I had also originally simply brought a letter from the President of my Bank attesting to the readiness of my funds and my good record there.  They wanted statements.

As soon as I got back to Kansas City I got the insurance policy and the bank statements.  Not enough.  They wanted my savings account statements for the entire year.  Sent.  Now they wanted a photocopy of my landlady’s passport and her utility bill.  I reached out to her (Que Dieu vous bénisse, Carole!) and she was very quick at getting this to them.

The interval was total agony.  During the one month in which I was sending them (via email scans) all that they asked for, I kept thinking, “All of this to be denied?”  It was totally unpalatable.  Because, let me explain how this would go down if I got denied.

I would only be eligible for the standard tourist visa, which anyone entering France is usually eligible for.  You may stay in France – or any of the 26 countries – for three months, but then you have to leave the Schengen Zone (the European Union save for the UK) for at least 3 months, before you can return to restart with another tourist visa.  This would kill my plans for travel, ruin my mobility, and most of all, have wasted all the time I spent applying for the long-term stay visa above.

The final week before I got my visa I was visibly stressed to my colleagues and friends.  I had made plans and already made major decisions (and the money that goes along with that) as part of the preparation process and the fact that I might be denied really weighed on me.  So my advice, dear readers – don’t let it stress you out!  I had applied 90 days out and as much as the French like to take their time and make sure everything is just so, they didn’t want to hang on to my passport unnecessarily long, either.

One of my colleagues texted me when an Express Mail package arrived from the French Consulate.  I called immediately.  “Open it,” I told her breathlessly.  I just wanted to know, Yes or No.  I just wanted it to be over.

I heard the package rip.  She opened it up.  “There’s a visa in here, Stephen.”  Despite the fact that I have no problem screaming whenever my soccer team scores a goal, I was in a public place when I was on the call so all I could do was pump my fist in the air.  “Thank you thank you thank you,” I told her.  “I’ll be by soon.”  I said a brief prayer of thanksgiving, and then headed in to the office to see it myself:

corrected visa

Even now staring it I get happy (note my incredibly non-happy/very French expression).  I think of all the documents and diplomas I’ve received in my life and they always seemed to be at the end of an arduous journey.  But this document, this was an authorization to change my life.  The difficulties and stress in obtaining it melted away in the endless possibilities the next year would present me with.

It’s said that the American Dream is owning your own home.  I’ve never understood how paying $100,000 in interest to a bank over 30 years on top of whatever you paid for a home was a dream.  My American Dream?  Living the life I want, on my terms.  This visa cleared any final obstacle to that beginning.

Begin at the Beginning

So when people first find out I’m moving to Paris, there are usually looks and sounds of astonishment.  And it’s only now, when I’m about 60 days out from beginning my journey, that I truly understand that astonishment, because I’ve felt the full effects of just how hard it has been to pull this off.

Let me explain.  I’m a choleric.  An ENTJ.  People think of my personality as “ready, fire, aim.”  When I made the decision to move to Paris I bought a one-way ticket and started all my preparations.  But, as I was soon to discover (the “aim” part), the science of picking up and moving when you are in your mid-30s and fairly well-established, with numerous possessions, is one that requires a lot of patience and fortitude.  And now, when I’m so close, I finally have the mental real estate to start getting excited.

Tour Eiffel a Nuit 008 My love affair with France and the French language started eons ago.  My sisters and family seem very surprised to hear about it now, but the signs were all there.  When I was 15 I delivered an entire speech dressed as Louis XIV in French (I was coached by a good friend on the pronunciation).  I bought a French course on cassette tape when I was 18.  And the first time I returned to Europe since my study abroad, I went to Paris.

I can’t tell you when I first heard French spoken.  I’m sure you’d want me to name the day, time, and hour, but I honestly can’t remember.  I just remember being elevated by the way it sounded, and I was desperate to one day be educated enough to speak it myself.

The picture on the left here was from the first time I stood under the Eiffel Tower.  You can see some flashing white spots on it.  This is the time of day when the lights come on the Tower and so for a period of time it flashes while it’s lighting up.  I just remember being incredibly entranced and happy.  I had wanted to come to this city for so long and I had worried that I had built it up too much in my head.

I hadn’t.  Paris was everything I thought it would be, and more.

There’s plenty more I’ll write over the next year, but I suppose I should end this first post at the beginning of this journey, which is what the title of this article promised anyway.

For those of you who haven’t read The Four Hour WorkWeek by Timothy Ferriss, stop reading this article right now, go buy it, read it, and then come back and finish reading my article.  For those of you who have (or who are unmoved by my hyperbole), the author lays out a number of thoughtful and stunning premises throughout the book.  The one I will share with you goes under the heading of “lifestyle design.”

The clue is in the name.  Instead of getting a good job or starting a business and then designing your life around that, Ferriss argues that the very FIRST questions you need to ask yourself are: What kind of life do I want to live?  What do I want to do with this life?  What will my legacy be when I leave this earth?  Once you’ve taken the time to answer these questions, then (and only then), do you get to figure out how you will make money.  The making money thing is secondary IF you are living the life you want to live.  Conversely, if you’re making all the money you want and you aren’t living the life you desire, what is the point?

So, at the end of one month off, which I used to spend traveling all around the lovely country of Australia, I had the answer to my question: I wanted to spend more time seeing Europe.  I didn’t want to have regrets later in my life that I didn’t take the time to see a part of the world I loved so much when I was still young (I figure you don’t get to call yourself that anymore when you hit 40, so I’ve still got a solid 6 years!).  I came home in mid-January, told everyone about my decision (nothing like telling everyone to paint yourself into a corner so that you HAVE to do something), and started my preparation.  I’ll tell you more about that preparation next time.