Book Club: A Year in the Merde, by Stephen Clarke

I read a lot of books about Paris and France before moving here and I’ve only recently realized I might do well to share them with you.  So, I’ll start with an old favorite.

It was the second week I was in Paris.  I had just gone to an Asterix exposition at the ugly BNF (Bibliotheque Francois Mitterand), with my friend Julien, who I had met in Adelaide, Australia, a year earlier (a story for another time).

“Stefan,” (this is how the French pronounce my name), “Stefan, do you know zis booke, ah, a year in dee Merde?”  I nodded that I had vaguely heard of it, but not much more.

He started laughing.  “Oh, you must read it!  It is soooo funny!  And it’s true!”  Julien is a great guy – a real anglophile to boot – though he insists that when we go on ski trips I only speak French – so I gave his recommendation its due importance and in time purchased and read the book.

It was, as he had warned me, absolutely hilarious.  One time I almost choked on my tongue while reading in the metro because I was laughing so hard.  Another time, while I was buying groceries at Franprix, I noticed that the checkout guy started to giggle quietly because he saw the book under my arm.  “C’est vrai?” I asked him, left eyebrow raised.  “Oui – tous!” he responded.

So, Stephen Clarke, the author, invented this fictional Paul West character who comes to Paris for a job and gets caught in the life of apartments, work, and love.  It’s told from an anglo perspective, and it’s particularly funny if you’ve lived in Paris for any period of time because the jokes hit on the realities of everyday life.  Some memorable lines from the book include:

Jean-Marie did the hugest shrug I’d ever seen, even outdoing the man in the electric shop.  His shoulders, arms, his whole rib cage, took off vertically in a gesture of infinite indifference.

and this

The Paris police are the best in the world at one thing – sitting in buses.”

and this

Red lights are like queues,” he said scornfully, “They are for people who have time to waste.”

It’s not a perfect book, by any means, but it’s very revealing in its takedown of the French.

Clarke was a bit taken aback, I’m sure, by his success, and has gone on to write at least two other books on this theme, which I have, unfortunately, also read.  I say unfortunately because these books go beyond the playful fictional satirical conceit of the first book and just linger in stereotype that is, over time, increasingly unfunny.

Yes, it was funny that first time – but if you want to keep going you’re going to have to go deeper.  In comedy, the analogue would be the first Austin Powers movie – the first one was funny in so many ways – the others were horrible.  Same with the sleeper Liam Neeson hit film Taken.  I love that movie.  Which is probably precisely why I hate the sequels so.

Perhaps we as moderns don’t understand that success can be solitary (witness Harper Lee being huckstered into releasing an inferior and revisionist novel in her dotage).  Success doesn’t mean having to repackage your great idea as something only slightly different.  Indeed, success is sometimes leaving well enough alone.

So, read this first one.  Skip the rest of Clarke’s catalogue.

Paris: frontline of Airbnb and Uber’s wars

As a resident of France I appreciate that the French hold on to their traditions and ways of life and are generally skeptical of change.  Unmoderated and unguarded acceptance of change isn’t always the best thing.  Nowhere is this more a topic of conversation these days than with Airbnb and Uber.

These two American juggernauts have seized upon a simple idea and commercialized it: there is spare space in your home or car – if someone wants to rent that space for some period of time, and you are willing to allow them to rent it – you can complete an exchange of commerce.  Furthermore, in many cases, the necessary taxes are paid by the company, the provider, the end-user, or all three.  So what’s the problem?

In France?  “Les acquis.”  This term refers to the amorphous set of benefits and “rights” that the French feel broadly entitled to, and are willing to march in the streets to protect.  Not only (in their mind) are these rights guaranteed forever, but in all likelihood, these rights will only get better and sweeter with time.  I’m not going to talk about this concept for the moment.  I only want to use it as a reference point to help you understand why the hotels and taxi companies are absolutely livid about these two unicorns.

In a universe of acquis you have jobs and economic systems for life.  No pesky disruptions.  Year after year your universe is set and perfect.  Taxi-driving schools collect millions of euros in tuition and hotels collect hundreds of millions of euros in bookings. Never mind that both taxi companies and hotels employ tens of thousands of foreign workers and hence this can’t be argued to be about “French jobs.”

Indeed, it is a question of secrets.  In his book Zero to One Peter Thiel talks about the discovery of secrets as key to billion-dollar businesses.  The discovery of sharing unused space was a secret.  Overnight it created, in essence, the largest room-provider and largest transportation companies in the world.  Not by a massive capital spend, but by really intuitive software that could connect the provider and the end-user.  This massively democratizes micro-entrepreneurship by lowering barriers to entry.  You would think this would be welcome in a country that carves “liberte, egalite, fraternite” into the stonework of their buildings.

And yet, the French, used to the idea that anything you do with your time for money has to come with an enormous raft of benefits, including 2 years of unemployment pay, burn and flip cars and raid apartments in protest.  Who are they hurting?  Uber and Airbnb have more money, time, focus, and brains to devote to winning this matter legally – or they will simply pick up and leave.  In the meantime, people who own cars or apartments in Paris who are simply making some money to defray their costs of ownership, as well as everyday commuters and travelers looking to save money, are the ones actually penalized.

Despite the fact that “entrepreneur” is a French word, fundamental disconnects like this happen.  Entrepreneurs don’t get acquis.  We build our own acquis over time, with hard work, perseverance, and a tremendous amount of sacrifice.  No one forces us to do it.  We provide willing services to those willing to pay us – we’re even happy to pay taxes…to a point.

It is the convergence of these two attitudes – the inbuilt idea of acquis and a population that prefers guaranteed jobs for life to entrepreneurship (because they are fundamentally risk-averse) that leads to such a strong pushback against these services in this country.

And yet, it seems to be politically motivated.  Many of the people my age (and younger) actively use Airbnb and Uber here in Paris.  We know what hotels are and we know what taxis are.  We have used them, many times.  We also know that airbnbs and ubers are neither hotels nor taxis, and come with their own risks (as if hotels and taxis are risk free!).  But we understand that it’s important for people to have lots of choices.  Transportation-wise, that’s what makes getting around easier: buses, metros, taxis, ubers, bikes, scooters, and yes, walking.  Indeed, Uberpool is even an innovation among taxis – using intelligent software and gps to save everyone time and money.

And yet, despite a multi-million euro settlement with Airbnb last year, the City of Paris is being pressed by the hotel lobby for more raids.  And the ride-sharing industry is under pressure after a recent taxi strike.

In English we say, “the cat is out of the bag” to say what has happened has happened, and that you can’t go back.  Parisians have discovered that they can make money renting out their homes and cars.  Hotels and taxi companies have discovered that their guaranteed monopolies are over.  The City of Paris is caught in between them.  But the secret is out, and the hotels and taxis are in for a very rude awakening should any real move be made to ban Airbnb and Uber in Paris.

The photo used comes from the Independent.

This article was also published on Medium and LinkedIn.

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.

The Clothing Inventory: How I escaped the French sales season

The “official sales dates” in France are roughly January 6-February 16 and June 22-August 2.

SOLDES!  The all caps scream out at you from all the shops in Paris – then there’s the deuxième démarque, and the dernier…at each stage the frantic pace increases, and stores get progressively messier as the “regular” sizes sell out.

Paris will up your fashion IQ – even if you never planned for it.  Scarves, shoes, jackets – I had definitely upgraded since moving, and there’s always something you can add…or is there?

I wrote some time ago about forced decluttering and about how a small Paris apartment forces you to be thoughtful about your “stuff.”  Combine that with a recent shine I’ve taken to the Minimalists and their ideas, and I was Rey resisting Kylo Ren…must not buy…clothes on sale…I tried to remind myself that he/she saves the most when nothing is spent.

But willpower wasn’t enough.  I took a clothing inventory.  Apart from socks/underwear I simply counted every piece of clothing I had.  Every scarf, tie, shirt, shoe, jacket, etc.  I typed it all up and printed out the 2-page document and looked it over.  There were no spots I needed to fill.  I had a great wardrobe.  Indeed, I realized that still some might go away via the 90-day rule I’ve observed since 2010 – if it’s in season (ex: sweaters in winter) and I haven’t worn it in 90 days, it has to be given to someone else who will use it better than I will, or to a place that takes clothing donations.  So, instead of getting sucked into the sales season I took an opportunity to remind myself that I might be getting rid of some clothes as we move from Winter to Spring.

If making the clothing inventory isn’t enough – print it out and carry it with you so that every time you want to make a purchase during the sales season you can pull it out and check yourself. 🙂

Shipping-The-Force-Rey-and-Kylo-Ren-470

“Soldes” photo from pterjan.  Creative Commons.

Unexpected Consequences: Instant and Ongoing Decluttering

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that the Four Hour Work Week is a major influence on my life and was a big part of the “how” portion of the massive quality of life upgrade that was my move from America to Europe.  In the book Tim puts forth a notion called “mini retirements” in which instead of working and saving until some mythical age to sell everything and move to Thailand (for example) why not do that now for a few weeks and see if you actually like it.  There are other reasons to take mini-retirements, including not assuming you’re in control of your health or when you die, but what I want to focus on is Tim’s insistence that you dump pretty much everything.

Stuff.  It can define us.  And Americans in particular have so much room that nothing stops us from buying more.  We even define our “national holidays” by sales of stuff.  We even have a very healthy business category of self-storage, which is an embodiment of our hoarding mentality.  Alas, that industry is now kicking off in Paris (and probably greater France as well).

Tim’s points were simple: get rid of everything that doesn’t have a particular or sentimental value.  You can always buy another couch, or plates, but maybe you can’t buy that one pan Grandma taught you to cook with.  Dump the other stuff, keep that.

I decided pretty quickly that my “must keeps” consisted of roughly 100 framed prints that had mostly been painstakingly transported from Europe over the years and adorned all the spaces of my then-home in America, as well as the 4000 books that I had collected over many stops of library book sales and used and new bookstores over the years.  I spoke to a friend in Canada who had a large amount of space in a new home he had recently moved into, who also happens to homeschool his kids.  He would get a teaching and parenting resource for free, as well as for his own enjoyment, and I would have free and safe storage of my treasures.  We agreed on a 5-year term, after which time we could discuss what was to follow.  I knew after 5 years in Europe (I’m 2 in now) I would either have a place to ship the books or have a long term plan about what to do with them.

So books and art sorted.  I rented a large truck about 6 months before I left the USA and drove the books to Canada.  As a note, if you do this, the Canadians will ask you for a value, so they can tax you…on stuff you already own…because hey, you might choose to sell it!  So, cynically (and in keeping with American, and what I would find out, French traditions), I assessed the 4000 books at a value of $.01 each and the art at $1.00 each, to a value of roughly $200, which I still had to pay tax on.  Small price to pay honestly, but it does add an extra 30-45 minutes to your border crossing.

I then proceeded to dump all the furniture I had painstakingly picked out during my “I’m a grown-up now with a real salary” phase when my college furniture found the curb.  These were the delicious dark wood headboards, the plush suede couches, the tasteful (and useful) ottomans.  I even had a lovely Victorian double-sided desk.  All gone: happily mostly sold to friends and friends of friends, and what was still left over went onto craigslist.  For the very last items (what was I doing with my own power drill?), I left them with my sisters to sell on their own or keep.

That left me with roughly 20 resealable tubs into which I mostly, but not exclusively, put items of real sentimental value.  Stuffed animals I had as a child which I kept in really great condition and which I wished to pass on to my children or to my nieces and nephews.  A report on birds I wrote as a ten-year-old.  A drawing my sister made for me.  That kind of stuff.  Some dear friends have been kind enough to keep those tubs in a spare room in their home.  I plan to keep reducing the quantity of tubs in that room every time I visit, loaded with goodies from Europe for my gracious caretakers.  And each year that passes that I don’t miss the stuff in those tubs, it makes it that much easier to get rid of when I do see it again.

In truth, limiting myself to the four full-sized pieces of luggage I ended up bringing to France was an enormous task that I totally underestimated.  I flew American Airlines to France in December 2013 and at that time the policy was: 1st bag free, 2nd bag $100, and bags 3-10, $289 each.  Hard to believe, but this is actually the cheapest and fastest way to move your stuff.  I checked into freight, believe me, and either my calls weren’t returned, or my emails weren’t returned, or it was prohibitively expensive when I did manage to get a price sheet.  Same for UPS, sea-freight even.  And then you have to go to Le Havre to pick it up.  Yeah, skip that.  Pack it with you.  It’s really cheap, comparatively.

Now, when you’re bringing that much stuff (my aforementioned 4 pieces of luggage…I won’t even share the absurd limits of carry-on that I stretched), you find a way to bring too much, so I want to encourage you to spend one month packing these 4 pieces (or fewer).  You’ll take more stuff out as you work on it every day and keep asking “Do I have to have this?”  I know when I showed up to the airport that I was at least 5 pounds over on each bag.  But I knew how to get around this: the skycap.

This profession doesn’t exist in Europe, oddly, though it is exactly the sort of profession you expect to exist there.  They are (for my Euro friends who might be reading) men and women who stand on the curbside to help those who wish to “skip the line” get boarding passes and check bags there instead.  For this “convenience” you are expected to tip – anywhere from $5-$25/bag.

That morning that I left Kansas City the skycap picked up all 4 of my bags and gave a slight grunt for the last one, the heaviest.  “Where ya goin’?”  “Paris.”  His eyes widened as he looked back over the bags, quickly calculating how much it was going to cost me.  “I’m moving.”  “Ah.”  He started weighing the bags, and I watched each bag on the digital readout.

53 lbs

57 lbs

52 lbs

61 lbs

“They are all over.”  He was reminding me of the 50 pound weight limit I was already aware of.  Overweight would add $150 to each bag.  I nodded, putting on a guilty and downtrodden look.  I wanted my silence to speak.

“I can take care of this for you, if you make it worth my while,” he said after a beat or two.  I tried not to beam and high-five myself, as this was the exact response I was banking on.  I took out my last bit of American currency I was carrying, a $50 bill, and put it on the counter.  I still said nothing.

Given that he was about to save me $600, he was expecting more, I’m sure, but he probably realized that $50 was good pay for 5 minutes and a few key strokes that indicated that yes, these bags weighed no more than 50 pounds.

We were operating in that shadow economy, and little did I know that this was precisely the kind of hustle I needed to survive and thrive in my new country.

So, to sum up:

  1. Get rid of mostly everything.  Try to come up with creative, trade-based, non-recurring monthly cash flow ways of storing the rest.  You need to spend as little as necessary in your new country when you first get there.
  2. Take a long time to pack what you are bringing, in order to have a critical instead of a stressed and harried eye to look it over with.
  3. Don’t hesitate to leverage American idiosyncrasies to bring what you want.
  4. However, do be pragmatic and take the time necessary to figure out what you really need vs. what you can buy when you get there.

A giant move out of the country can be the impetus for that Spring Cleaning you always aspire to do (and which my sister Clare does roughly every 3 months) but never get around to.  Which is yet another reason to move abroad.

And when you do get here, the housing in Paris is small enough to prevent you from restarting that life of stuff you left behind.  When you shop, you constantly ask yourself, “where would I put that?” which is a practical question that you don’t have to answer in always too big America.

* * *

For a great video to share with kids or anyone who cares about our planet and the absurd and unsustainable way of life in the First World, check out the work that these guys have been doing.

Photo from jsmjr.  Labeled for reuse.  What a cute dog.

Meetup: A great way to build a core of diverse friends

This summer I went to the Fete de la Musique with a large group of friends.  Though it originally started in France it’s now a worldwide annual event.  As the evening closed out at our fourth musical venue out of hundreds we could have chosen, I took a moment to be thankful for a platform that has connected me with so many wonderful people.

Meetup is a company that started in NYC in mid-2001, but really gained traction after 9/11 as New Yorkers tried to connect with people who wanted to talk and process the disaster that had befallen their city, their nation, and the world.  It has grown quickly in the US, and as a result it can cost north of $100USD/year to start a group.

For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, Meetup is a “just add internet” for any type of group.  Want to “jog on Wednesdays” or “knit on Tuesdays” or “club on Saturdays”?  There’s a group for you to join.  Can’t find the group you want?  Start your own.

For the casual browser it’s a dazzling arena of fun activities with strangers who might become friends.  For the organizer type (comme moi) at only 12€/year to start up to three groups, it’s a bargain that pays back massive dividends.

I created Paris Culture Lovers as a way to find people like me – who love art, film, books, conversation, food, and day trips.  We are closing in on our first year as a group and have done almost 90 events, some of which were among my most treasured memories of 2015.

So what’s the bad news?

  1. Many groups are ephemeral.  People get enthusiastic, start a group, never do an event or do one and give up.  That’s okay.  It happens.
  2. Because Meetup has created a “buffet” culture, and because of society worldwide becoming less accountable about events and invitations, many people feel they can no-call and no-show an event they have RSVPed for, or cancel hours or minutes before an event, for frivolous reasons or for no reasons whatsoever.  You might not do that to friends but you may be inclined to do that to strangers (At PCL we have invented a ranking system that measures and ranks you by the number of events attended and gives senior members priority for events).

But neither of these things are dealbreakers and as this year ends, a group of the core of Paris Culture Lovers have become good friends and strong acquaintances, which means a lot to a stranger in a strange land – even more so to the type like me, who isn’t seeking to surround himself with expats to build an anglo island in France.  There are meetup groups for that…if that’s what you want.  But when I want to feel like America or be with Americans…I visit that country.

* * *

PS I should note that I had two Meetups fail due to lack of interest – a casual kick around soccer group and a chess players group.  But you have to try in order to see what works 🙂

Taxes and Transferwise

I recently had the opportunity to meet with one of the readers of the blog over lunch.  We discussed some of his strategies for staying in France but since he had just recently arrived I asked him to check with some of his connections (he had done work at an accounting/consulting firm) about getting taxes filed.  That’s right – as an American, even if you’re here on a visitor visa and prevented by the terms of your visa from working for a French company in France, the French government requires you to file a tax return.

You read that correctly.  Now, despite the fact that you don’t owe any taxes, you still have to prepare the taxes, in French, according to French accounting laws.  If you don’t have these intersecting skill sets, let me know and I can connect you with an amazing firm that did this for me for the 2014 tax year.  If this has slipped through the cracks for you, let me know asap and I will try and connect you – there’s no fine and no fee to pay (as ostensibly, you don’t have taxes to pay) but you don’t want the French government catching you doing something you are supposed to do.  Better late than forgetting altogether.

2015 will be the last year that I will be considered a “non-fiscal” resident – as part of the path to citizenship (which involves my new visa) is paying taxes.  If you aren’t married to a French person, and don’t pay taxes for 5 consecutive years, you aren’t on the path to citizenship.  I still can’t say I “look forward” to paying taxes, but I do look forward to “being on the path.” 🙂

* * *

Early on in this blog’s life I wrote about opening a French bank account.  It’s honestly something you’re going to need to do if you plan to stay here for longer than 6 months.  However, again pursuant to your visa status, you really only want wire transfers coming in from yourself, not from employers – even if those employers are outside France – this will just cause questions at the Prefecture should they look closely at your bank accounts when you come for your appointment.

Wire transfers are “old-fashioned” in our modern age and carry old-fashioned fees.  The originating bank charges the sender (i.e. YOU sending to yourself), the receiving bank charges the receiver (again, YOU), and then there are currency exchange fees.  However, this system is in the midst of being disrupted by a company started by the guys who built Skype and bankrolled by the likes of Sir Richard Branson.  It’s called Transferwise.  If you click this link your first transfer is free so you can try it for yourself with no risk.  To learn more about how they do this, and circumvent the wire transfer system, watch this funny video.

Hope you enjoy the service as much as I do.  I’m an unabashed user, though I can’t imagine my US or French banks have been happy to miss out on all those fees I used to pay them 🙂

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.***

The guy who stole my iPad

He hangs out at night on my street with three or four of his friends. They smoke, drink, and talk about nothing, as 25-35 year-olds are wont to do. Whenever I pass him, and we manage to make eye contact, I smile, wave, and cry out, “Mon petit voleur!” I call him a thief because last November he stole an iPad out of my bag.

* * *

It was my last trip of the night. After one year I had “graduated” from my 8 square meter closet in the sky, towering above the rooftops of the 17th arrondissement, to the 39 square meter reality of a 2nd arrondissement apartment with a kitchen I couldn’t reach from my bed/couch. The day had been filled with those joys of Paris moves: large bags and luggage going down one set of stairs and then up another (in my case down 8 flights of stairs and up 5; no elevators), with the steps and passages of the Metro in between (some can afford moving trucks – I couldn’t at the time). It was 00h30 and I had the last few things with me: two bags slung over my shoulder – one of which was an open sack that contained my laptop and iPad. As I exited the metro I pushed the office chair that I had also brought down the platform. A young man and three of his friends came down the stairs. The one I would focus on (from here on “MPV” for “mon petit voleur”) started to mock-dance with my chair. Tired but amused, I didn’t even take the headphones – still blaring Chris Martin and Coldplay – out of my ear. I simply hauled the chair up and over my head to carry it up the stairway and as I turned away from the group one of them must have reached into my bag and taken my iPad. I didn’t think to check my bag until I had reached the top of the stairs. In a panic, I stashed my office chair and bag someplace by a building and dashed back to confront my thief. The adrenaline had dumped into my bloodstream (I could feel the rush) and I didn’t think clearly enough to go back to the same “inbound” platform I had just departed but instead went to the “outbound” one. I stood on the platform crazed and breathless, and then, just as the train on the opposite platform started to creak forward, I made eye contact with MPV. If I hadn’t been incredulous, I might have shouted expletives. As it was, all I could summon was a measured but incensed, “Hey!” He laughed, smiled, and blew me a kiss. The train slid out of the station.

* * *

I didn’t stay to watch it disappear into the darkness. That would have been pointless. I was going to activate the app which Apple had made famous: Find My iPhone. I almost ran up the staircase with my remaining luggage, kept going to my apartment, ran up those stairs as well, with my office chair no less, and hurriedly opened the door to my new apartment. I dropped everything on the floor and activated “lost mode” on the iPad. It showed up almost immediately. The pinging blue dot was at Republique, four metro stops away on Line 3, and was moving slowly towards Canal St. Martin.

As I look back on it now and reflect on the actions which followed, I think of it as calculated irrationality. At the time my French was still more elementary, I was alone, and I didn’t actually know how many friends he had in his posse. But I had been stolen from, and the salve to cool the white-hot burning humiliation and anger (which, interestingly, is not unlike the embarrassment a 9 year-old child might feel upon being slapped in public by his mother) was the feeling I hoped I would experience upon tracking this guy down.

* * *

I came out of the main entrance of Republique, without even noticing the statue, the one I so despise, that sits in the middle of the square. I focused on the radiating blue dot on my iPhone, the blue dot which had not moved since I started tracking it. I had sent a message in French to display on the iPad that essentially said I would take the iPad back for 50€ without involving the police, with my phone number appended. Unsurprisingly, given (as I learned later) what he could get for taking it to one of these chop shops in town that wipes them and sends them to Morocco to get sold, he didn’t respond.

Within minutes I was standing directly in front of the café the blue dot indicated my iPad was in. I spotted him. I was breathless and angry, so I started shouting at him in English. I pushed him. I called him names. People came to intervene. I pulled out my phone to take a picture of him and he threw a punch at me as I took it, obscuring the picture. The remaining adrenaline had been dumped into my system. I wasn’t thinking about his friends or the possibilities of knives. In reality, any of them could have had their way with me because I was fixated on his visage: he was the only one I had identified from the moment of the theft. My stupidity and carelessness aside, I manage to pat him down (an iPad is a hard thing to conceal) and found nothing.

At this point some of you might be shouting for me to activate the “alert” sound which would have made it easy to find the iPad. Instead I fixated on this guy, who when I realized didn’t have the iPad, started to walk off. I stayed with the geolocation that the iPhone was giving me. The blue dot wasn’t moving despite the fact that he was now a block away. This could only mean that one of his friends (who had scattered and none of whom I would recognize anyway) had it. I stayed there for a few more minutes, speaking in broken, angry French to anyone who would hear me. Then the dot started to move rapidly in the opposite direction from which MPV had walked off. It was in a vehicle of some kind. I started running after it.

* * *

It was 01h32. I remember a gentle rain falling. It was the kind you could possibly enjoy – not the spitting type that so often annoys. My phone’s battery, taxed with the exertions of tracking and GPS duties for 60 continuous minutes, was down significantly. The adrenaline had been spent and outside of the fight or flight context I had been in just a while ago, my body assumed the facts of the day: fatigue from a full day’s move, frustration at the poor moves and decisions made in the last hour, and the dawning of the next stage in the seven that comprise grief: acceptance.

“Say it,” I said to myself. “Say it so we can go home.” I looked up, looked around, and with chagrin that no one saw, said at a volume that no one could hear, “I’ve been robbed.” I slowly exhaled and walked to the Metro. After some more anguished reflection, I fell asleep for the first time in my new apartment.

* * *

If I had originally encountered this man in my neighborhood, then surely, I reasoned, he might be a regular (Parisians get into patterns with their nightspots and hangouts). “Perhaps I’ll see him again,” I thought to myself. It’s a small enough Paris to have chance encounters with friends. Surely I could manage a chance encounter with an enemy?

I didn’t have to wait long. I went to the US in the month of December for personal and business reasons and when I returned in January I saw him. I was so shocked to see him that I didn’t make eye contact and hurried past.

He lived on or near my street, I realized.

The occasions repeated, but now I would smile and call him “my little thief” as I walked by. He smiled and waved. It was this acknowledged reality: “Yeah, I stole from you, but come on, look at me.” I didn’t have any recourse that wouldn’t take an extraordinary amount of time and would ultimately be fruitless. I let it be.

Instead, I’m finally sharing this account with you, writing in the café I was in when I first saw him emerge from an adjoining building with a cute little child. A daughter? Niece? I didn’t know. Part of me wanted to go up to her and tell her in my now-much-improved French, “Hey, do you know this man is a thief?”

But almost immediately, I laughed at my first-world problem (and apparent grief). The guy with a Macbook Air and an iPhone was going to be aggrieved about a stolen iPad (which he had bought a replacement for in December) when there were people who didn’t have clean water to drink or food to eat? Non. And for once, I thought I might try “forgive and forget,” even in the absence of an apology or demonstrated remorse. If I buy this guy a drink one day, I might not only forgive, but begin to forget. And if I can do that for a stranger who had wronged me in such an unwarranted manner, might I not see a way back to forgetting all the wrongs that had been done to me over the years, by friends close and distant? But then this would be the thief who gave something to me instead of just taking something, n’est ce-pas?

I live in a different Paris than you do…

“And you know, Paris is all metro and work and the run-around.”

He used the famous idiom “Metro-boulot-dodo” which is a colloquialism that is literally “subway-work-sleep” that indicates the grind of life for many in the City of Light.  We were high in the French Alps, not far from the Italian border, but quite a distance away from home, and yet the complaint was similar: “I used to think Paris was magic, but now it’s just a place I work and pay bills.”

I tried to hide my dismay at hearing this, because no one should live in a place that one doesn’t love, if it can be avoided.  It’s socially acceptab2014-04-08 13.57.40le to tell people you moved to a dreadful city for a job but it’s some revolutionary concept to tell people you moved someplace for the city and who cared about the job?  It would come.

Now, I’m not pretending that everyone can have a great amount of time wealth/lifestyle in the world’s finest cities, but if you are going to bother to live there, to “put up” with the cost of living, it’s surely a great shame if you can never enjoy it.

Now, the first time I heard this complaint was from a lady who attended my Paris Culture Lovers meetup who rather sourly 2014-03-28 13.24.00complained about her schedule as I described my own, which included grocery shopping, visiting parks and museums, and riding a Velib during “off hours” – when everyone was at work from 9-5.  While I was a bit taken aback at her tirade, even though I’ve become very used to the French complaining (it’s a national art and sport), especially since she chose to move to Paris 15 years ago – for work – I avoided what would have been a typical American retort: “Well why don’t you do something about it instead of just complaining to 10 near-strangers about it?”  I said it another way to my friend Julia last month: “The French as a people would rather complain about what they don’t have than take responsibility for building their dreams.”  Instead, I just managed to stutter, “I guess…I guess I just live in a different Paris than you do.”

Since my current conversant was French I decided to take a different tack and asked him how he planned to break the cycle.  He shared some great ideas, but unsurprisingly, had not done any real research into those ideas.

2014-04-14 12.29.22***

Okay, Stephen, so people quit their miserable city jobs, then what?  Look, I don’t know.  I’m not advocating that everyone quit his/her respective jobs.  I’m just asking the serious and adult series of questions: what is the life you want for yourself?  Are you living it now?  If not, why not?  Do you have any plan or timeline in which you will be living the life you want?  Does it solely hinge on money?  Have you rethought that?

Surely life is more than paying rent or a mortgage.  Our time on this magnificent planet is too short and brief to spend focusing on the life you don’t have.  Start creating the life you desire and marvel at how much the journey alone will prepare you to enjoy what awaits your sacrifices.  I’m reminded of the words of Marcus Aurelius:

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

The obstacle is the way.

2014-04-18 19.48.52-2The photos are all ones I took this time last year, when Spring had definitely arrived.  For now they are consoling me that we are almost there, as Winter is staying too long this year.