Archive for January, 2011

How Painful It Is to Shop . . .

30 January 2011 2 comments

Being a newbie to this land of Gauls, naturally I am asked frequently what is the hardest thing that I am adjusting to?  Quickly the French/Europeans answer their own question by saying space.  They believe every American lives on a ranch in Montana, drive on 6 lane highways and has to drive in their SUV to go their next door neighbor. (exaggeration)  Consequently I am suppose to have this psychological trauma to space here.  Everything is tight, small and often uncomfortable in the Old World.   I quickly retort back saying I am from Philadelphia, things are crowded there too.  (Their eyebrow rises.)  Actually I would have to say shopping is the most difficult.  (Then there is a true pause.)

I come to this topic in reflection of the past Holiday and consequently being surrounded by winter sales.  You can’t have the Holidays unless there is shopping, both before and after.  So much of our economies rely on this human occupation, or rather addiction.  I do find the French habit very different on many levels and my own American conscience has had to adjust – for the better.  First there are the very visible habits.  You go to any mall in this country and dogs are very welcome.  If the store has a food section there are always signs politely asking that our friends animaux remain outside the food area.  Most stores will charge you for a shopping bag with an obvious environmental motivation.  So I have quickly adjusted to leaving a few plastic bags in my car to take with me so that I don’t need to buy more (reuse, recycle).  Then there is the timing of when to do shopping.  With the strong union presence for workers, stores are only open till 7 or 8 in the evening plus closed on Sundays.  So I always have to plan ahead if there is something that I need.  I either pick up something immediately after work or on a Saturday.  Sometimes I can’t get to a particular store for another week due to timing.  Go down the famous Avenue de Jean Medicin, the shopping district in the middle of Nice, on a Sunday and nothing is open except the Virgin Megastore.

No Credit Cards?  No Sunday Shopping?

No Credit Cards? No Sunday Shopping?

Yes, one may grit their teeth at the thought of such a restrictive environment but I have come to appreciate it as a breath of fresh air.  I am letting go of instant gratification of the American consumer addiction.  Having shops open 7 days a week or even 24 hours allows us to feel in the moment we think we need something that we can instantly obtain it.   I have already experienced wanting something but by the fact I had to wait a while to buy it at next available time slot, I lost interest in that thing and chose not to buy it after all.  I am now sitting down and thinking what is most important now for me to buy?  Clearly I may only have a few hours on a Saturday to do my shopping.  I am now prioritizing my purchases instead of just getting it all at once.

The French have a knack for being passionately in love and in hate at the same time.   The government has blocked Wal-Mart from making a presence in the French market.  Ikea has tried several times to open a store here in the Côte d’Azur but the residents of each village it selects literally go to the streets in protest.  Yet global consumerism continues to creep into French society.  Wal-Mart simply bought shares in Carrefour, the French look-alike.  Carrefour is always open Sundays and Holidays till at least 9 at night.  Of course, that place is packed every day with French people enticed by the supposedly lower pricing.  (The Carrefour by my work in Antibes holds the honor of the most expensive one in all of France.)

Even when it comes to grocery shopping, I find that the French do more frequent, smaller excursions; not massive Sam’s Club stock-ups.  There are open markets all over Nice which is a true delight.  You still have vendors bringing fresh fruit, vegetables, spices and flowers to the city and everyone eager to buy.   One article that I read stated that three reasons keep these marchés alive, 1) the French instinct to desire fresh food when cooking, 2) small kitchens so they don’t have the space to stock up and 3) the social element to shop and interact.  I do say that I found a little corner market for my fruits and vegetables.  The guy is a little more expensive but worth it for the size and ripeness of his products.  Plus there is pleasure in keeping the small business afloat.  Again, the time schedule comes into play with as he is never open on a Sunday and he is entitled to take a vacation here and there.

On the other end of perspective is the frozen foods of Picard Surgelés.  This store found all over France and a few other European countries specializing in the sale of everything that can be frozen.   When you enter the store, is a vast array of freezers and literally nothing else.  You will find every food group frozen including both raw and prepared foods.  Being single, I enjoy this store to stock up a little on the essentials in my freezer.  I also happen to watch a documentary on Picard one evening on television.  I was impressed that there is still a focus on freshness.  For example Picard built one of their factories right by the port so that when the fishermen come in with their fish and scallops, they immediately freeze the harvest.  Then they have developed a solid infrastructure to keep the food frozen all throughout the transport process.  The business goal is to get the food frozen immediately after harvest and never let it thaw until it gets into the hands of the consumer.  Again, this store is not open Sundays and still shuts down for lunch during the week.

But I do have a couple convenient shopping place where I live.  I have a boulangerie (bakery) and a small Carrefour Market grocery store literally right across the street from my apartment.  Both of these guys are open 7 days a week. 🙂

Of course the physical act of shopping is one thing; the other is what is going on in your wallet.  You can’t really have a full conversation on this topic unless we do a little economics.  What is your purchasing power here in France?  That is an interesting question and I am still figuring out how to answer it.  Yet here are some interesting discoveries.

First the French are truly savers; it is in their culture.  One study showed that the credit card penetration rate in France is 1/5 of that in the United States.  So it is not uncommon that the average joe Frenchman doesn’t even have a credit card.  If he does, he is only going to have one and not several.  I have witnessed in simple conversations with colleagues and new friends.  They way they talk about purchasing is in the manner of saving money and then making the purchase.   If they need to make a big purchase or in a tight financial situation, I find the culture is still to go to your local bank and take a small loan – not run out and find a credit card.  My American mind was so unsettled by not having a French credit card (in lieu of my American ones that always charge me international fees for purchases in Euros) that I immediately applied for one that found through Air France.  I was immediately rejected obviously because I was too new in the country as a resident.  I plan to explore that option again later in 2011 now that I have proof I am a permanent resident with a permanent job.  Consequently I have adjusted to this debit card dominate market.  Each paycheck I allow myself one major expenditure and that’s it.  If I want something else, I have to wait for the next month for the next paycheck cycle.  This month I debated between quality cotton bed linens or a bedroom lamp; the sheets won out.

Categories: Everyday Life

Sir – uh – ree – yea!

15 January 2011 Leave a comment

Say it with me together “sir – uh – ree – yea”. Again, now real fast sir.uh.ree.yea.  Very good!   You just learned a crucial word in French in order to survive.  The word serrurier (what you just pronounced) means locksmith.  It holds, to me, as much importance as the phrase secours! when you are in a situation and you need serious help like the police or an ambulance.  Why do I feel locksmith is such life-preserving word?  Sit down, grab your coffee and put two lumps of sugars, not just one.  I am about to tell you a story.

This past Thursday I had the delightful experience of Antibes, as in the next major town west of Nice and south of where I work.  A lot of my colleagues live there because it is closer to work.  If you choose to live in Antibes, you do sacrifice several things such as: money (cost of living is more expensive here than Nice), French culture (British retirees have invaded the town so that you go into a store and you will be greeted with a ‘hello’ instead of a ‘bonjour’) and a social life (it is lively in the summer but in winter it goes mysteriously dead).  So what was my motivation?  A colleague of mine at Amadeus ended her temporary contract so a group of us wanted to have drinks together one last time.  It was a pleasant evening of lively conversation in a very quaint lounge bar named Cozy Café.  We lasted till almost 11:00 p.m. but it was a school night so we all headed to our beds.

Unfortunately I was the only one at the table living in Nice and having to drive back to my bed.  The others lived in Antibes and didn’t have far to go.  Off I go down the famous A8 autoroute that I have written about before.  I get to my neighborhood and found a great spot right around the corner from my apartment.  I was already thinking about a quick bowl of cereal before hoping into my warm bed.  I get to my door and insert my key.  My stomach drops; something is wrong, terribly wrong.  The key does not budge .  .  . at all.  This is just weird as have not had any problems with neither my door nor my lock.  So I am trying all different ways to apply pressure to turning the key.  I am now starting to hit my door to hopefully jiggle the lock a little to loosen it.  I am even grabbing the door handle to lift the door a little.  Nothing . . . except snap.  My key successfully broke in two; me holding the handle and the teeth of the key still in the lock.  putain.  Something is terribly wrong.

Time check: 11:40 p.m. No worries, I already have a serrurier programmed into my iPhone.  I have heard of other people needing a locksmith and with my previous posting last summer, I was sure to be prepared.  I called the number . . . no answer, just voice-mail.  Hmmm.  I could have sworn this number was their 24 hour line.  Luckily this serrurier was just down the street from my apartment.  I thought maybe I wrote down the wrong number and this was just their normal business line.  I quickly walked down to the shop and clearly on their window they posted their number for 24 service.  I compared what was in my phone and it was the same.  I called again . . . .  still no answer.  I race back to my apartment building to keep warm in the little lobby.

I sent out a few SMS to some friends that live in Nice but as expected no response.  It is now almost midnight and everyone is asleep.  I decide to call my colleague who I just had drinks with.  She should still be up and the fact she is no longer working she wouldn’t have the need to get up early.  There was also the fact she is fluent in French.  I explain to her the situation and ask if she can look up a serrurier for me or better yet know of one.  She said she would research and call me back.  I wait.

Ironically a few days earlier we all received a handy magnet of all the important numbers in Nice such as the police, ambulance, 24 hour plumber and yes even a serrurier.  These magnets were inserted into everyone’s mailbox in my building.  Of course I properly took mine and placed it in my kitchen like any good citizen (of any country) would do.  A lot of good that magnet is doing for me now.  I happen to look over in the little waste basket in our lobby and voila!  I was fortunate to have a bad citizen in my building.  Someone threw theirs away!  I snatched the magnet out of the trash and dialed the serrurier as if he was my best friend.  Instantly he answers as if destiny is bringing us together.  I was able to convey the situation in French and he was on his way to my address.  I probably didn’t wait 15 minutes before he arrived.

Post Drilling - Front

Post Drilling - Front

We go up and assess the situation.  He now clearly sees my dilemma.  He explains to me you have a really good lock.  I smiled back at him with I know but that isn’t comforting me right now look.  He can’t pick this elegant lock.  He offers to break my front window.  Non.  I explain to him I am the owner, I rent.  He then offers the suggestion to go through my neighbor’s apartment and cross through the terraces on the back side of the building (see my summer post again).  Non.  I replied my terrace doors are locked too so that doesn’t help.  What is a real solution here?  He drills.  He has to drill into my door and tear apart my lock.

Time check: 12:23 a.m. Everyone is asleep.  He explains he can’t drill now or else we would wake the building up and the police would arrive.  So we agree to meet back at my apartment at 11:00 a.m. later that same morning.  I call my colleague again actually waking her this time.  I’m taking you up on your offer for the couch, I am coming over. So there I go heading back to Antibes.

Post Drilling - Back

Post Drilling - Back

Next morning I arrive back at my apartment a little before 11:00 in order not to miss my new best friend in the whole south of France . . . actually it is bigger than that, let’s go with the whole world for the moment.  Anyway my best friend arrives in his beat up Toyota truck with all his tools, a cigarette and a slight smile.  It is now time for a lesson in keys and locks.  He points to my key and shows that I have 3 diamonds along the side of my key.  Each diamond stands for 30 minutes.  30 minutes of what you say? 30 minutes of drilling through the lock to get to the other side.   Gentil.  We knock on my neighbor’s door who happens to be home and we borrow her electrical outlet to power up his drill.  He goes to work; I sit on a lawn chair in the electrical closet by my apartment to keep warm.  Luckily I had a book with me in my bag.

Like clockwork, 1.5 hours later (3 * 30) we see light at the other end of the tunnel.  I am home!  It never felt so good!  I offered him a beverage and then he went straight to work on removing the entire lock from the door.  I quickly hop on my computer to send some important e-mails and to make some phone calls.  I suddenly had a day off that was clearly unplanned.  Finally he now sits down with me to convey the damage of all this work and the price of a new lock.  Here in my head I was thinking 500 Euros for this episode of An American in Paris.  Nope, try 4 figures on this one.  Shocking, isn’t it?

Back up here, this is France and not the Home Depot. The French love locks!  You have locks on everything here.  Plus the locks on your front door are not ordinary $39.99 door knobs with a key.  They are serious metal contraptions with two rods going up and down through the door.  When you lock your door, you have locked your door.  At this point, there is nothing I could do except to accept his price.  I mean he already did most of the work to get me in my home.  I signed the paper estimate.  After thinking I was taken for a ride and I did some research on the web.  Come to find out my 3 diamond lock runs €999.99.  Of course he was just replacing what I already had.  Don’t believe me?  Check out this page to see the variances of prices for locks. You don’t need to know French to read price tags.

At this moment, he has to leave to go buy the lock.  Within an hour my buddy is back at work installing my shiny new lock that each one of you are required to compliment when you come visit me (or else you are getting a hotel).  The young gentlemen didn’t leave my place until 4:00 in the afternoon.   To add more salt to the wound, in the process of cleaning up the dust and dirty I broke my vacuum cleaner.  Sigh. In any case, I am home with a lock and 3 keys that make my entrance ever so sexy.

Job Complete!

Job Complete!

So can’t I get someone else to pay for this lock? Well I have been exploring those options.  I did call my insurance company with my renter’s insurance (luckily they speak English) hoping I could just pass the bill to their desk.  Non.  “We only cover locks if there was a break in or vandalism but not for [stupidity]”  Of course I am paraphrasing but since this situation is due to my own actions, the policy doesn’t cover it.  She did politely suggest my rental agency under the argument “you gave me a crappy lock” but she quickly retorted with a “but good luck with that”.  She knows the rental agencies just as well as I do.  They will find leverage to say they aren’t entitled to pay because it was my doing.

By French law, the owner is really only obligated to pay for non-functional / broken items for the first 6 months of a contract.  After that they look at it as usage and tenant has to address the situation.  Of course I still have to get a clear picture in English of what are my rights as a tenant.  Remember, in France there is always a grey area within any law which frequently drives Americans mad since we have such a black and white legal system.  I didn’t get the agency involved in the beginning because I didn’t want to hear another non and have them delay the serrurier any further in getting the job done.  Plus they already have a list of other things to fix like 2 awnings over the terrace, a shutter in my front window and the wooden planks in my steps.  Now add another bill? Careful, France can be all about the emotions.

Some of you may have also thought why not go for a cheaper, lesser model?  Well the French are much more thorough inspecting an apartment when you enter a contract.  Every little nick, scratch and scrape is documented in a walk-thru.  If they noticed a difference in the lock (particularly a lower model) when I reach that one day I leave the apartment, they have leverage to hold that change in value against me.

So where does this lock put me? Well, I am grounded enough to save money for rainy days and today it poured.  I am fine financially; I am not destitute.  Unfortunately I am not be able to hit the road traveling as soon as I would like.  I have to recoup my savings keeping in mind my lovely first tax bill towards the end of 2011.

Categories: Everyday Life

Because The World Moves

9 January 2011 Leave a comment

There is one commercial for CIC (a bank) here in France that I find to be very catchy. The various scenes always take place in the competitor’s bank.  There is a client with a life changing event demanding a particular service from the bank.  Unfortunately the competitor bank isn’t very helpful and the final shot is the client looking through the window and seeing a CIC across the street.  Their slogan is parce que le monde bouge (because the world moves) and they claim that they, as a bank, are as dynamic as life itself.  They will be there with you continuously as your life changes.

The Official Logo of Nice

The Official Logo of Nice

I am curious if they are the official bank for the city of Nice.  I just read this week a big spread in the daily newspaper about the changes to come in 2011 chez moi.  I am proud to say I picked a good spot to be living as it is clear Nice is on the up and up.  Here are some highlights and how they pertain to me.

Voie Rapide – The French give this name to any stretch of road that doesn’t have any stop lights nor roundabouts and gives you a quick way to get from one part of a city to another.  It is like a highway but doesn’t have any formal numbering like the A8 autoroute that I take every day to work.  For Nice, there is a voie rapide that cuts the city in two going east and west.  I use this stretch of road in my daily commute back home.  Right now, it can be a bit of a pain because you can always count on bouchons (bottlenecks) due to construction as they have closed one lane.  It has been officially announced that construction will be complete by February 9th and it will return to 3 lanes. 🙂

Stade Sportif – Nice will begin construction of a brand new stadium on the north side of the city.  This new stadium will definitely put Nice on the map to be able to host more sporting events within the French market.  It was recently heavily considered to be one of France’s selection as a candidate for the  Winter Olympic Games but fortunately another French town further in the Alps beat us.  I say fortunately because the infrastructure in Nice would be catastrophe; we have the Alps behind us and the ocean in front of us leaving no room to build out to handle volumes of people.  You can enjoy a 3-D animation of how the stadium is going to be built (no French needed to understand).  They are proud that this stadium will be one of the most green, ecology friendly stadiums in the world.

Public Transport – Nice has one light rail tram in service that crosses the city going north and south (everything else is served by buses).  It has been a huge success as the ridership figures are huge and its integration into the city landscape has been flawless.  This year they are kicking off construction to extend the tram as well as begin construction of line #2.  The second line will go east and west and connect the downtown with the airport using avenue de la Californie (my street) as the main route.  So I may have some painful seasons to come as construction will arrive tearing up my street but seeing the results of the first line, it will be well worth the agony.  The second line won’t open for service until 2014.

Gare Routière – The bus station right in the heart of downtown closed for good on Wednesday the 5th.  Why? Well in such a beautiful city as Nice, it was a major eye-soar.  It was built back in the ’70s or early ’80s judging by its design.  It was very functional but did not hold any ascetic.  To the south of the bus station is a lovely green space, along with Place Massena leading out to the sea.  To the north is the big National Theater of Nice and the Modern Art Museum.  The plan is to completely destroy the bus station and make it an open mall from the museum down to the sea.  They claimed we won’t recognize this part of town by September.  Plus all the bus lines won’t converge at one location causing a bit of a traffic jam; they will spread out the bus lines a little more evenly.

Electric Cars Are Coming!

Electric Cars Are Coming!

Voitures en libre-service – Remember my days of Philly Car Share and ZipCar?  Well I may get them back again.  Nice has had a very successful Vélo Bleu program where you can rent a bike to go across town.  I have talked about how I use it regularly either here on the blog or on Facebook.  Due to its success Nice is going to venture into doing a similar program with cars in the same fashion as ZipCar.  What is even better, they have ordered a fleet of electric cars for the program so zero emissions.  After reading this article it made me wonder if I will continue to own my car in the next year or so.  I truly miss those days back in Philadelphia and not having a car.  Now owning one, I am reminded how much car expenditures can eat into your personal budget.  For work, I have been taking the bus that goes door-to-door more often and my car is sitting more and more in the parking lot.  Something I will continue to ponder in the years to come.

Gare Thiers – The national government authorized spending last year to expand the world-famous TGV train line all the way to Nice.  Currently, if you take the train to Paris it is a 5.5 hour ride.  Although at first one can be impressed with that speed you need to look closer to find some discrepancies.  The first 3 hours is where the train is going at top speed covering the distance from Paris to Marseille, 800 kilometers.  The remaining 2.5 hours is spent going at normal speed from Marseille to Nice; the same amount of time it would take to drive there.  The route quickly looses its appeal.  Due to topography and population density, the train can’t go any faster on the current set of tracks.  Now the government will build a new set of tracks specifically for the TGV between Marseille and Nice potentially making it possible to be in downtown Paris within 4 hours – very impressive.  I foresee a lot of weekend trips to Paris in my future.  In addition, our train station (Gare Thiers) is getting a complete face lift with a brand new all glass exterior and easier access to the tram lines.

Whew!  Now that I have bored you to death with my urban design addictions, you may have the question who’s paying for all this?  Well, I will say France does a decent job at public works and the tax structure is supportive of these measures.  But the important point to not forget is politics.  The mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, is both political party partners and best friends with president Sarkozy.  It totally helps to have friends in the right places when it comes to finding the finances.  That is true any where in the world.

Categories: Everyday Life

It Is All Downhill From Here . . .

1 January 2011 Leave a comment

Going Down?

Going Down?

Allow me to fulfill a cliché; let me reflect as it is a new year after all.  I often get the question how long will you stay in France? Honestly, that is a tough one to answer and usually answer I don’t know yet.  To have such a colossal change in one’s life (moving to a foreign country) there is a necessity to let it play out for a while.  See how things fit and feel; the positives and negatives.  My employer, Amadeus, knows this need all too well.  Hence why for the 3rd interview they fly their candidates to do an all day face-to-face interview.  They want to make sure you feel comfortable here in the Côte d’Azur.  I believe they were more attracted to me being single as frequently it is an easier transition for one person instead of many.  I have heard stories at work of how they found candidates, hired them and relocated them plus the families and only to lose their investment not even a year later.  The new employee was adjusting fine and doing well on the job.  It was the partner or children of the employee that were not adjusting well forcing the new employee to resin and move back to their home country.

We still have two positions open in my department at work and my managers have been actively interviewing.  For a recent example, there was a Canadian that was a prime candidate and made it all the way to the third interview here in France.  He was married and had children.  Unfortunately, when he went home and reflected with his family, they turned the position down.  He stated it wasn’t enough pay but you never know what the family discussion was like on such a big change.  He may have been just hiding behind that reason.  Of course from a business perspective, Amadeus would rather write-off a plane ticket then the whole cost of relocation for a family.

So the words of wisdom among expats is to really give the new location 3 years.  After that 3rd year, you can truly feel acclimated and feel your new home is just that, home.  The 1st year is the honeymoon and you love your new country, new sights, new sounds and new cuisines.  The 2nd year is when the pendulum swings the other way.  All you notice are the negatives about the new country.  The people all of sudden become either annoying, rude or stupid; the food suddenly becomes overrated; the bureaucracy either makes you want to scream or cry.  Finally the 3rd year is when things level out; you appreciate the true positives and accept the negatives as what they are.  In the meantime, I hope to being traveling in 2011 specifically here in France.  I am truly excited to have the opportunity to explore the different cities such as Toulouse, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Dijon and Lille for long long weekends with no worries about jet-lag.

My Carte Vitale

My Carte Vitale

But let’s get to me. 🙂  It is interesting that this new year is supposedly all downhill.  I say interesting because I feel like I have so much less to worry about.  A couple last pieces of the puzzle to complete my transition arrived in the mail last week.  I had my official Carte Vitale with my French social security number.  I am officially in the system and can get any health care service in this country and automatically have 70% of the bill paid by the State.  A big relief has you never know what life brings you.  The other item was my acknowledgement from the Préfecture on my driver’s license.  My file is ready for them to receive my PA driver’s license to exchange it for a French one.  Another relief as you only have a year from point of entry to do this exchange.  My car insurance company requires me to do this step to remain insured.

So what do I have left to worry about in my second year? Really, not much. My interaction with the bureaucracy will be minimal leaving less room to get upset with them.   My personal budget is in good shape now having cleared most of my moving bills.  Friendships are blossoming.  Work is clear and I know what to do (and not do).  I have strong colleagues at work and plenty of people to go to lunch with.  Amadeus is making plenty of profits so we have longevity for business.  Time will tell if this blog will take a more antipathetic tone and I follow the paths of previous expats.  The main thing is to stay focused on year 3 in order to really assess whether I stay in France or not.

Personal note: For those interested in what I did specifically to bring in the Nouvelle Année, I spent the evening with some new friends.  First I did have to work a half-day that clearly had a relaxed attitude.  Then one of my new friends hosted the evening in his apartment for simple food, wine and dancing.  It is one evening you can have a party in France and not have your neighbors yell at you for being too loud.  The party lasted until 3:00 in the morning and then we all got safely home.  France is really cracking down on DUIs (since it has a not so good record compared to its European counterparts) and the police are out full force on New Year’s Eve.  Luckily my ride didn’t encounter any along the way.  It was good time and just the way I like it as I am not one to really go to public spots on New Year’s.  Bonne année et bon santé!