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.

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.

Paris: The Most Beautiful City in the World

I understand that in a world that thrives on relativity (“everyone’s opinion is equal,” and other such tripe) such a declarative statement as the title of this essay makes may rankle.  Let’s start at the outset by admitting that the world is full of beautiful cities.  But before you get upset, let me make my case.  Save your furrowed brows for after you’ve read my piece.

I have been deeply blessed to have been to many capitals all over the world.  The capital of any country is a place where the country may, like a peacock, strut with feathers in full view.  There may be monuments to national moments and heroes, and churches where many gathered for centuries, and streets with countless stories.  Paris is one of those capitals, and yet for all the vaunted pride of the French, Paris never struts, as it is supremely confident in itself.

photo taken from sawboonloong.blogspot.com

photo taken from sawboonloong.blogspot.com

When people ask me why I think Paris is the most beautiful city in the world, I always start by talking about the beaver dam.  The beaver dam is an artificial construct made by animals within a natural environment.  The beaver dam is useful, aesthetically pleasing, and sustainable.  When viewed in nature – it does stand out – and yet it is harmonious.  When it is at its best, the human city is much like the beaver dam.

It’s beautiful

Beauty isn’t uniformity or conformity.  It’s the respect paid by those creating to those who will view, throughout all time.  In the construct of a city, this means sidewalks that invite and welcome walking, paths for bikes to buffer those pedestrians, and limited access to cars.  Cars cannot be allowed to be the defining principle of city planning and growth.  It’s not that cars are ugly – it’s that in being overly accommodating to them we impinge on everyone else and part of beauty in a cityscape is balance.  Despite being built long before the automobile’s ascendancy, Paris does an excellent job of giving cars freedom to roam without allowing them to own the road.

It’s accessible

A beautiful city can’t be unreachable.  It has to be accessible to all.  Paris has every mode of transportation imaginable, at reasonable prices (for the resident – it can be a bit pricey for tourists) and with a high level of reliability.  If you can’t afford these modes of travel, the city is built for you to walk;  businesses, diffuse in their location and variety, are everywhere to accommodate you.

It’s not sprawling

Still-intact medieval cities like Toledo in Spain give us a good idea of what “size” should mean in relation to the human scale of cities.  Some cities, like Portland, Oregon, are experimenting with this in our modern milieu.  Whether they can be successful in the era of speculative real estate is less relevant than the effort itself.  A city like Paris which is relatively small (I’m only examining the 20 arrondissements that properly comprise the city) allows you to get to know your neighbors and run into people all the time.  Those sorts of occurrences build that social fabric that makes a civitas, not just a group of people living in proximity to each other.

It lets nature in

Paris has trees down nearly every boulevard and more parks than you can shake a fallen tree branch at.  Nature is seen as a harmonious and necessary part of the city – not something you keep on the outskirts or in the countryside.

It melds old and new

As much as I may dislike the Georges Pompidou or Bibliotheque Francois Mitterand, they, and other structures like them remind us that the human project is never finished.  Some periods are clearly better than others (you’re never going to get me to like the Rococo or Mannerist periods) but yet all of it still, in its own way, works.

It has water

An homage to an era before we could steal water from far away places and create cities that should not exist (Las Vegas), a river reminds us of the reason why humans came together to live in the first place – to be near a resource so integral to our daily lives.  Now, I should admit that the dirtiness of the Seine is a disgrace and has a number of not-easily-resolvable causes, but the way the river and its constant traffic – both on it and along its banks, winds through the city is fundamentally arterial, and, if it were removed, its loss would completely change the character and city for the worse.

Public spaces play host to private pride

Many homes in Paris are small and are not built for large-scale entertaining.  As such, many parts of the city are de facto extensions of the home.  Those public spaces are more beautiful than even the most extravagant private places might be, and so you can take a stroll through what were once the private demesne of the king and his family, and see how staggering such beauty, kept to oneself, might have been like.  You live within a small home because what is outside and available to you for free is so priceless.

It has an identity

It’s only a virtue to be an “international city” if you have your own clear identity.  If you walk away and know what the identity of the city is – what it has left within you.  Paris is the most visited city in the world for a number of reasons, but I suspect that part of it has to do with the fact that not only does Paris promise so much to those who learn of it, but it so overwhelmingly delivers that we lovers of it are forever haunted by its soul, even if circumstances do not allow us to make a permanent home here.

Many cities are beautiful in their own way.  But Paris, for all these reasons and more, is the world’s most beautiful.

My 35th.

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”

-Thornton Wilder

I was born at 4:04am Singapore time on March 28th, 1979, nearly two weeks past my original due date.  That meant that around 21h00 on the 27th, Paris time, that my 35th year had commenced.  I wanted to give you a 24-hour snapshot of the day, which was not really different from many Fridays in Paris, except for the fact that I had completed most of my work projects for the week and had no students to tutor.

***

21h00

It was the end of the month so I was sending emails to my staff at Word Works, as well as to some vendors and one follow-up with a potential new client.

I tidied up some things, checked my watch again, and decided to be early to my movie at UGC George V on the Champs Élyseés.  It would also allow a leisurely walk and I sometimes left too late.  I took a small volume of Robert Frost’s poetry in tribute to the bit of Winter that had stubbornly stayed on these last few days.  I also brought my language journal.  The Grand Budapest Hotel would be subtitled in French, and I would be able to jot down a few new words as they flashed across the screen.

It was quiet as I stepped onto my street.  Paris is, in many places, quiet after 8.  Even more so in my neighborhood, the 17th arrondissement.  I was equidistant between Wagram and Monceau, but Line 2 and Monceau suited me well for my destination.

I clicked along in my high-top black leather shoes that told of my approach along the old cobblestones.  I had the beginnings of a smile on my lips for any stranger who might make eye contact with me.  I hadn’t become Parisian enough yet to completely avoid eye contact!

I was carrying a water bottle with me.  I had brought it with me from the States.  People use them all the time there but here very few people carried such bottles around externally.  I had to remember not to set it down, lest I forget to pick it up.

I clicked down2014-03-29 13.37.30 the steps to my side of the metro station.  The timers read 04 and 10.  Four minutes to the next train, 10 minutes to the one after that.  I adore the Paris Metro.  I2014-03-29 13.37.43 often feel that it’s faster and better than a private driver.  Well…almost.

I sat down on a seat and cracked open my Frost.  Many American schoolchildren know “The Road Not Taken” but my real love for his poetry began in 1998 when I studied his work in his beloved New Hampshire at Thomas More College.  Poetry can be read a thousand different ways.  Tonight I flipped through somewhat indifferently.  I was looking for resonance so I could stop reading and reflect.  I found it here.

Caught up in my thoughts I automatically rose to get onto my train, then alight at Étoile, and then out onto the Champs, and almost carelessly walked past this, which I always try to stop and admire.  After a moment or two I did an about-face and walked to the theater.  I chuckled to myself as I had once remarked that only people in San Francisco read while walking, but I realized, nose in my book, that lots of people in dense urban settings do that.

I retrieved my ticket using my UGC card and descended into the lobby to wait for my showtime.  It was Lent and I had already had my two collations and main meal for the day.  I just tried to keep my eyes on Frost instead of the candy palace before me.

An efficient young man came up some time later and asked me in French what movie I was waiting for.  “L’hotel grand de Budapest.”  “vous pouvez aller maintenant.”  “Merci.”

22h00

I chose “orchestra” seating.  In some of the theaters in France, as in Singapore, where I first watched movies, they had “balcony” and “orchestra” seating.  For most of my life I’ve preferred orchestra.

I settled into my seat.  As I’ve grown older I’ve tried to avoid the rush and crowds of a theater by carefully selecting a showtime guaranteed to be less crowded.

The movie was typical Wes Anderson.  Fun and detailed backgrounds, signage, and models (Darjeeling Limited).  Some foreign language usage but no subtitles (Life Aquatic).  Cheekiness (Rushmore).  Relationships (Bottle Rocket).  Family (Royal Tannenbaums).

I walked home slowly and deliberately, almost as if in the opposite of a race.  In the hustle and bustle of the day you can’t always enjoy a walk and now as I had the streets to myself, my clicking footsteps slowed.

As I came out of the Metro and turned towards the treasure that is Parc Monceau I saw the sweep of a spotlight in the sky.  It was coming from the Eiffel Tower, of course.  In the evening a giant floodlight rotates at the top of that thing, imitating a lighthouse.

Look, I can’t get as excited about the Tour Eiffel as the newbie visitor might.  For many who have never been or will never go to Paris, it is the source and summit of their Parisian dreamings, if they have any.  My thrill comes when I show first-time visitors or my friends and watch their reaction.  Enjoyable, to stay the least.

What’s Paris to me?  Square John XXIII.  Place des Vosges.  Petit Palais.  The Diana Statue in the Louvre and at the Jardin du Luxembourg.  Kids and boats.  Any cafe.  St. Francis Xavier.  St. Etienne du Mont.  Notre Dame de Loreto.  The Orsay Clocks.  Alexandre Dumas.  Moliere.  Pastries.  Canards.  Notre Dame, original edition.  Pere Lachaise.  Sunsets on the steps of Sacre-Coeur.  Music on the Seine.

The sensory overload can cause some to switch off.  They go about their day oblivious.  And believe me this can happen as easily in Paris as in any other city.  But when you let Paris speak to you she’ll disclose wonders.

00h20

As I was almost to my apartment I got a text from a colleague who was hosting a podcast.  His show had started and his call screener had no-showed.  I sprinted up the 7 flights of stairs (when you walk it multiple times a day it isn’t as bad as it sounds) and called in to the studio and screened his calls for about 30 minutes as I got ready for bed.

I thought I would be tired as I tucked in some time later.  I had said my prayers and had been texting with a few friends.  I put on the beginning of the anticipated Nick Clegg/Nigel Farage debate, and fell asleep (not because I wasn’t interested but because I finally let myself go).

***

10h00

The morning provided a slow wakeup.  I had forgotten to turn on my space heater so I drew my blankets in closer to myself to stay warm.  Fridays were typically days off, anyway, so I was content to sleep in.  I flipped over, pulled up The Guardian’s Politics Weekly podcast, and heard what the Left had to say about Nigel vs. Nick.

One of the criticisms that crept into my don’t-want-to-get-up-yet ear was that “He (Nigel) clearly can get flustered and he made that crazy statement about the EU having blood on its hands over the Ukraine.”  The conversation proceeded apace, and Farage’s foil was the nearly professorial Clegg, who as a “professional member of the political class,” as Nigel is wont to call most MPs, was unflappable as he dodged parry after parry from the UKIP Leader.

“That’s because he’s a normal person,” I thought aloud, to no one in particular.  I was much like Nigel – a big idea person – content to leave details to those smarter than myself – confident in my ability to rather lead, motivate, and inspire.

11h00

I finally roused myself.  I made a petit dejeuner and sat in front of my computer to pay the regular end of the month bills.  Funnily enough, my landlady prefers to be paid via paypal, which makes paying rent a breeze.

I also ran down my budget vs. expenditures spreadsheet, now well into Month 5.  It was the first month my projections had actually hit their targets.  At some point I’ll write a post about the cost of living here.  In some ways, it’s expensive, sure, but in many ways having a constrained budget helps you realize just how little one needs to survive in a modern society.

I then turned to some personal and business correspondence, and made out my to-do list for the day.  It’s a simple system that works for me.  I make a list of 10 things that have to get done by the end of the day and what doesn’t make it goes into the “extra” list.  Whatever doesn’t get done that day, together with the extras, helps comprise the next day’s list.  Conversely, if I’m ahead of schedule I can pick off some items from the “extra” list.

12h00

My friend Justin FaceTimed me.  We would not change to Daylight Savings here in France until Sunday, so he was only 5 hours behind me in Florida.  It was 07h00 for him and as a coffee lover he was moving past the stupor which first light brings to lovers of the bean.

He’s a business partner and we discussed some matters while I packed up my messenger bag for the day.  Books, journals, iphone/ipad charger, ipad mini.  We switched to the telephone as he began his commute and I got ready to go out.

It was a truly beautiful morning.  I have a really cool list of cafes that purports to offer expressos for 1 euro or less.  This is generally reliable.  Indeed at Le Trois Pieces the other day I got a cafe creme (French for latte) and half a baguette for 3 euros 20.  But that’s to be expected deep in the 17th, where no English speakers or tourists lurk.  Here the locals will complain about high prices.  But hey, if you want to pay 8 euros for a coffee to get no better view than many other places in Paris, head to Saint-Germain-des-Prés.  There you can sit at Deux Magots and Cafe Flore and many other places famous for being famous, which specialize in parting tourists from their money.  For me, I’m done standing outside in a line to get into a club: paying to sit in a cafe that offered nothing spectacular, something quite similar, did not make my list.2014-03-28 13.18.47

2014-03-28 13.21.08 I set out, to-do list in hand.  My chosen cafe today was not far from my front door.

As always, I was treated to sites like this one.  But there’s ugly architecture in Paris too, pictured below it, just a block away.

As I headed down the street it turned into a “market” street.  This is great for people watching, but terrible for reading and writing, which were my intended activities for the afternoon.

2014-03-28 13.24.00 2014-03-28 13.25.58

So I turned around from that market street view, and looked at the cafe behind me, and spotted that open table at the end, under the red awning.  You have to confidently walk up and grab your spot in a cafe.  I lowered my bag and the waiter asked if I was going to eat.  No, “un petit cafe seulement” which is French for “I just want to order a coffee  and sit here for as long as possible.”  He apologized and told me that only the interior was available.

13h00

My timing was off.  It was lunchtime.  Of course they needed the tables.  I couldn’t go to my first or second choice cafe, so I was going to engage in flânerie now.  I wandered.  I still kept an eye out for a possible spot.  Everywhere was packed, however, and they don’t really even want to spare an interior spot at lunchtime unless you’re eating.  Totally understandable.

I walked into a cafe and gestured to an empty two-top.  “C’est libre?”  The lady sized me up: “Oui, pour le déjeuner.”  “Non, je voudrais un cafe, seulement.”  She gestured to the bar and I was content to stand there, drink, and perhaps read for a bit.  As she began to pull the espresso she asked, “Voulez-vous installer sur la terrasse?” “Bien sûr.”

I wrote and read for a couple hours.  People would stare at me writing just as I would stare at their chiens.  Parisians love their dogs.

At some point a French girl in her mid 20s, in all black, sat down next to me.  She ordered a soda and started smoking American Spirits.  Smoking is under attack in France (just as e-cigarettes are on a meteoric rise) but don’t doubt that it’s still very much the national pastime.  If you do doubt it, sit outside at a cafe.  Smoke will find you – as you will the ash which now fluttered onto the pages of my journal.

She struck the typical pose – cigarette carelessly held between the index and  middle fingers of her left hand.  Sunglasses.  No frown but certainly no smile.  She was thinking – not really observing much.  I was positioned to observe without being obvious.

After smoking 3 cigarettes and downing her diet coke, she abruptly got up and crossed the street, off to her next destination.  She had paid for her drink when it was delivered, which is often the custom when you sit outdoors.

I checked my watch.  I had a podcast I was hosting at 16h00 and it was 15h00.  I wrapped up my work and walked out.  Among the sites I saw on the way was this.  Great advertising.

15h15

My sister messaged me saying the children wanted to wish me a happy birthday.  Sure.

FaceTime gave me a moment with her and two of the cuties in my life.  I got a happy birthday song and caught up a bit.

“What are you getting for yourself?” she asked.  I was looking for a scarf, I thought.  Scarves really are everything in this town and finding the right one, and tying it the right way, does matter.

I didn’t want her to buy me anything, so I told her instead, “Clare, I’m living in Paris.  That is my gift.”

So it was.  My last birthday in Europe had been 14 years ago, in 2000.  Despite the fact that we had been able to drink for months my friends insisted it was “legal in America” night and I made it home that night, despite the tricky cobblestones in Trastevere, thanks to the sturdy left shoulder of my college sweetheart.

16h00

The podcast had a few technical glitches but we got them handled.  I then had a call with a new hire for one of my businesses, firmed up some weekend plans with friends – the new Captain America was coming out a week earlier here in France and I planned to take advantage.

I got dressed for dinner at a great Indian restaurant (Vallée du Kashmir, in case you’re wondering).  And just like that, my first 24 hours of my 35th year lapsed.

Some years ago the Lees Summit Chamber of Commerce conference room contained 20 of us who were sitting in a meeting room trying to organize a “young person’s” group.  One of the first questions the group posed was “How old is young?”  A couple eminences grises had tentatively asked, “25 to 45?”

An attractive girl I had been flirting with snickered, and I raised my hand to speak.  At 28 I was less diplomatic than I should have been, and blurted out, “I mean honestly, who considers 40 young?”  The 20-somethings in the room nodded their heads and the few 40-somethings in the room wilted.

It’s an unfortunate American trait that considers youth the greatest time of life and seeks to chase it indefinitely.  At dinner this night I would hear the phrase “James Dean” float over from an adjoining table (in an Indian restaurant, in a Muslim neighborhood, in France) and as I recounted this anecdote to my friend I was told the French have this problem as well.

Whatever happened to aging gracefully?  For my part the oldest person is always the coolest person in the room.  They have great stories and so much more experience.

At 35 I suppose some would still consider me young – and since I had done so much (I had hoped) to disprove George Bernard Shaw’s (oft correct) “It is too bad that youth was wasted on the young,” it didn’t matter what you called me.  I still thought it was a laugh that anyone in their 40s would call themselves young, but I did feel truly blessed that, whatever age I had lived to, I woke up this morning in Paris, having accomplished almost everything I’ve ever dreamed of.

Time for some new dreams.

I want to thank my parents, who gave me life, God who gave me my soul, and my family and friends who give me so much love and encouragement every single day.

Why Paris?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paris 2009 Day 1 045

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

Paris 2009 Day 1 075 (1)

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

Paris and Versailles 165

And seeing it at night.

Paris 2009 Day 2 022 (1)

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

Paris 2009 Day 2 027 (1)

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

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

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

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