Taxes Are a Matter of Perspective

19 September 2011 2 comments

So my checking account is breathing a sigh of relief now.  Why?  Because there is barely any money in it.  The big tax deadline in France just passed on the 15th of September.  I just paid mine in one sum for all my income earned in 2010.   So how painful are taxes in this country?  So far, I don’t find them that much more painful than the American experience.  Plus there are other European states that have a higher rate of income tax than the Gauls.  I’ve heard rumor Germany can be as much as 60% and let’s not talk about Denmark.  So what is different?

First I believe there is a psychological impact that makes one feel that taxes in France are significantly higher.  How so?  Well for one, it is 100% the responsibility of each citizen and resident to manage their own taxes.  Not a single company in France assist their employees in managing their incomes taxes.  (Please note that French companies do contribute towards the social security taxes of each employee that funds the health system and sick leave.)  In the States, we always fill out our W2 forms on the first day of hire declaring how much we are authorizing the company to take out of your paycheck to send directly to Uncle Sam.  In France, the company stays completely out of this relationship.  It is the only European nation set up in this way as everyone else has followed a variation of the American model.  So your paycheck in France may feel a bit bigger in the pockets but you have to remember that there is a big tax bill arriving in your mail later.  And that is where the psychological impact comes in – you get a full lump sum of taxes staring at you in the face.  (Instantly any foreigner will know how to curse in French upon receipt.) In the States the average person is contributing a little here, a little there throughout the year and then trying to claim a tax rebate because they have contributed too much.  Tax rebates don’t exist here; the best you can do is have a zero tax bill (which does happen).

Donnez-moi votre argent!

Donnez-moi votre argent!

Now the French government has done progressive things to enable the average citizen to pay this daunting bill.  First, I have heard more than once that the people working at the tax office are actually nice (contrary to the stereotype of French customer service) and more than willing to help you as long as you show willingness to pay.  Next there are actually 3 due dates throughout the year: February 15th, May 15th and September 15th.  The government will graciously divide the previous year’s tax declaration into thirds.  Of course if there is a change in your tax declaration for the year, you calculate that difference on the last date in September.  Another support mechanism is the famous Livret A account.  This is a savings account that automatically comes with your checking account at your local bank.  The benefit?  It is tax-free interest.  The motivation is for you to put aside money in this account to pay your taxes.  If you are good at managing your money and depending on your income, you can easily gain a few hundred euros by the end of the year from your Livret A.  These mechanisms help form the French society to be more known as savers and not spenders like their American counter-parts.  The French are apt to save up for a big purchase instead of buying on credit.  Credits card do exist here but aren’t seen in your average French poche (pocket).

Click to expand image.

Cross Comparison of Income Taxes

Another interesting approach is that the French government approaches taxes by people’s address than the actual person.  I created a very high level flow chart comparing the two systems.  Of course I have left out a lot of details on both sides but it gives a general sense of perspective.  I welcome my reader’s feedback on the flow in case of errors.  As you can see, you are declaring all revenues earned at your home address.  Those revenues include all accounts you have signature power over, all accounts your partner has signature power over, all accounts your parents (if living with you) have signature power over and all accounts your children (if living with you) have signature power over.  Notice how revenue remains vertical along family lines and not by individuals.

By law, when you die your estate is automatically given to your children (looking down); if they don’t exist the estate is given to your parents (looking up); if they don’t exist then your partner (looking horizontal); if they don’t exist then your declared beneficiaries.  You can’t override this algorithm by moving your declared beneficiaries to the front of the line.  It explains why estates in this country have remained along family lines for centuries – literally.  I even read a legal advice column advising a woman seeking divorce to demand alimony on the basis of her children’s financial needs, not hers.  By approaching the legal situation this way, she will be awarded more money in the French courts.

Sound crazy?  Not really.  You have to keep in mind that France has been around a lot longer than the United States with a legacy of royalties, monarchs and empires.  The United States is culturally too dynamic to view finances, taxable revenues and estates this way.  Plus you see direct results of your taxes in France.  The infrastructure is top of the line throughout the country.  Public transport is well-developed and affordable.  Cities and villages provide so many cultural opportunities free to the public.  You have a landmark distribution of health care.  Education is at a shockingly minimal cost compared to American rates.  The biggest public sector is the department of education, not the military.  It is also nice to simply pay one governmental system instead of several like in the States.  There is one Public Treasure that will gladly accept any of my checks for taxes.  Then that system will allocate the funds to my corresponding Région, Département and Commune.  Again it is a daunting system but streamlined and maintainable.

Give me your money!

Give me your money!

What is crazy is I can never escape Uncle Sam.  My American social number is tattooed to my fesse (butt) and Uncle Sam knows it.  Looking back at the French model, you may wonder how does the French tax its expatriates that live in another country?  Well they don’t.  The French views it that if you are living in another country, you should be paying that country’s taxes.  Your address is no longer in France allowing you to escape the tax flow.  Uncle Sam doesn’t see things this way which is flip side of taxing by individual.  The United States is the only country that taxes its citizens regardless of where in the world that citizen resides.  (yea, read that sentence one more time)  Many will argue that “Wait, there is a tax treaty between the United States and France!”  True, no denying that fact.  As they say the devil is in the details.  Americans living in France are in no way exempt from filing taxes with Uncle Sam; they are simply given a tax credit.  Currently that limit is set at $91,500 for a calendar year.  Once an American earns in revenue greater than that amount, they are expected to pay American taxes in addition to the French taxes they already paid.

Luckily I am not near that threshold but I still have to watch out and be attentive of that figure.  Remember that wonderful Livret A account I mentioned above?  Well it is tax-free through Marianne’s eyes but not through Uncle Sam’s eyes.  I have to declare that interest on my American tax form.  There are other ways of saving for the future here in France that I have to keep in mind how it will play out in the American tax system.  Then don’t forget there is the currency exchange.  I may not earn more salary in a year but if the Euro becomes that much stronger, I get that much closer to the threshold.

Also as a resident outside of the States, I now have to declare two forms to the government.  My tax form goes to the IRS and a thing called the FBAR goes to the Treasury Department.  That FBAR form doesn’t declare my revenues but just lists all foreign bank accounts in my name.  If the IRS decides to audit me, they knock on the Treasury Department’s door and asks for my FBAR.  If the accounts don’t match on the two forms, then I get a lovely fine.

So now who do you prefer to pay, Marianne or Uncle Sam?

Categories: Everyday Life

To Be or Not to Be . . . Then Which ‘Be’?

2 September 2011 1 comment

It is amazing to me that after a year of being a foreign land that integration is still a choice.  You would think that by now it would be second nature.  Instead I find that choice of integration is always there on my breakfast table next to my yogurt when I wake up.  It is a daily choice – to integrate or not.  To my surprise it isn’t a one time event that happens on the first day nor after three months nor after a year.  Integration is no different from the daily choice each human makes to decide whether they will be happy or not for that day.

I often get asked why I came to live and work in France.  One factor I proudly retort is that I had the influence of one my older brother’s who was an expat.  I witnessed his personal journey through several foreign lands; even ones that held a higher security risk such as South Africa and Syria.  It was a risk that I admired.   I remember one night when I visited him in Johannesburg and laid on his floor watching one the most beautiful thunderstorms in my life.  Then I had an epiphany, I envisioned the map of the world in my head and realized I am now at the bottom of Africa.  It was a bit surreal.  I am ‘here‘ and not ‘there‘.  Africa at the point became more than just a bump my fingers encountered as it skimmed across a globe.

On the other hand I have always had a quiet critique of my brother.  I never felt he integrated to these various places that he called home.  He quickly gave up his Italian classes in Milan.  He specifically chose South Africa because it was English-speaking.  I don’t even think Arabic crossed his mind while in Damascus.  His life was very insular and never having to leave the expat community.  Of course most of his journey happened without the Internet; a paramount tool that helps me integrate in France.

Don’t misconstrue my thoughts.  I am not saying his journey was a failure.  It was a fruitful journey in his perception of life and the values he stands for.  I now better understand which choice he made at his breakfast table.  I still critique his choice but I now have a clearer picture on why he made his choice.

What Am I Going To Do Today?

What Am I Going To Do Today?

I also see the same choice being made by my colleagues at work.  Obviously after a year I have grown closer to some allowing for non-business conversations.  Some colleague have openly shared with me that they are not trying to integrate into French culture.  When I hop into their car to go for a lunch, French Riviera FM (the only English-speaking station in the area) is on the radio.  They share which movies they recently viewed by downloading the English or American version off the Internet.  If we make plans to go to the cinéma, the only choices are the VO’s (version originale).  They have no plans even to develop friendships with a French person.  At times it can beg the question “Well, why are you here?”  Ironically, within the same conversation they make it clear the Côte d’Azur is home for them.  They don’t see themselves anywhere else.  They recount the good feeling when they disembark from the plane at the Nice Côte d’Azur International airport.  The Brits are notorious for making their own little colonies such as the town of Antibes here in the Côte d’Azur, a little village near Dordogne in western France and even in Spain.  Other more subtle choices are made such as not switching your driver’s license.  French law gives you one year to do the exchange or take the French driver’s test.  If you are caught as a resident of France with a foreign license (European Union members are the exception), you face a large fine.  So after living here for several years, these colleagues are inadvertently putting up a barrier.  They have a fear of driving and getting caught.  Consequently they cautiously drive back and forth to work and keep any driving to a minimum.  How does one discover your new home under that condition?

Of course for those that find a native to develop an intimate relationship, this choice becomes more straight forward.  The choice continues to be on their breakfast table but the relationship will push the decision so that appears seamless.  Failure to integrate very well may mean failure to the relationship.  Then add children to the mix and integration will be essential for survival.  I had an interesting chuckle at an expat Happy Hour recently this summer.  It is a good group of professionals mostly from Europe and North America.  Of course one of the ice breaking questions is “What brought you to Nice, France?”  Most of the responses center around professional reasons and the beauty of the area.  A Finnish guy threw me a surprise to say immediately “Women“.  He found it easier to date here in France because he is considered exotic; so he left his independently willed Finnish women and took residence here.  To him I say “bonne integration“!

My aim here is not to be an integration apologist nor to be a moralist to say one decision is better than the other.  I just feel motivated to reflect on that fact it is a continuous decision.  I openly admit that I have my lazy days.  I am at that breakfast table and I choose conscientiously to not integrate.  That day I could careless what the proper conjugation of être (to be) is at the moment.  That day I want to tell a joke in English.  That day I want the news explained to me in English.  That day I want a cheeseburger, cooked well done and a big Coke and yes, watch me eat it with my bare hands!  (The French love cheeseburgers too but they refuse to pick it up.)  And just maybe, if I feel a little arrogant, I will cut my lettuce in my salad and not fold it onto my fork!  All of these rude demeanor in a place I call home, too.

I often think back at the time when I taught English as a second language to immigrants arriving in west Philadelphia.  Before I was often sympathetic to immigration issues and rolled my eyes at English Only attitudes in the fabric of American politic.  Now I am more convicted towards the cause because I really see things through their eyes.  I admire those students even more on the choices they had to make to survive.  They too had the same decision to make at their breakfast table every morning.  Daily struggles could easily make a person give up on integrating and just cling to those around them that speak, walk and pray the same way they do.

So as Hamlet enters stage left to say his signature phrase known across the anglophone world, I enter from stage right to pose the second question “but which ‘be‘ will you choose?

Categories: Everyday Life

What’s Your Wirtschaftlichkeit?

17 August 2011 1 comment
Cost of Living for Several Cities

Cost of Living for Several Cities

No I am not lost.  Nor did read the sign wrong and ended up in a German class by accident.  I just had a weekend in Germany, the other pillar stone of the Euro zone.  The newspapers here are full of articles of opinions on whether the Euro zone will survive this economic crisis.  What is the wirtschaftlichkeit (economic viability) of the Euro?  Clearly everyone is going through a challenging financial time but I feel the Euro will pull through.  Yet I do feel good that I am just under the Euro zone ceiling for cost of living.  Besides the wider streets, bigger food portions and a slightly more American feel, Germany is having to pull more Euros out of its wallet.  The price of a café was much closer to the 2 Euro mark whereas in my French neighborhood I can still get a cup of joe for as little as 1.20 Euros.  German public transport prices reminded back to my days in Philadelphia where a one-way bus trip approached 2 Euros compared to my simple 1 Euro in Nice.  Then for me to board the regional train system to neighboring cities like Cannes and Monaco, a one-way ticket is still under 4 Euros.  It felt like the German system was easily double for similar distances.  (for the record, they weren’t any more on-time then the French trains; so much for German precision.)

Cost of Living: NICE

Cost of Living: NICE

I did come across the site Numbeo.com which is a community website to measure cost of living all around the globe.  My curiosity was giving me a bigger rash then most mosquitos.  I decided to cross-compare the cities that I have lived in throughout my life.  Of course, the data is based upon major cities so I had to round-up on my actual locations to Kansas City, Indianapolis (close to University of Notre Dame), Philadelphia and Nice.  (nerd note: my comparison doesn’t factor in time so these are all 2011 numbers so don’t cite me for a false premise.)  Not to my surprise, Nice is the winner as far as the most expensive place I have lived in so far.  This non-epiphany happens in spite that I do live in the ghetto of the French Riviera: Nice.  It is surprising how much more expensive are the surrounding communities of Cannes, Antibes, St. Jean Cap Ferrat and the obvious Monaco.  I do chuckle every time I examine these indexes as they always say the center of the world is New York, NY.  That city is always the baseline and ranked at a 100 regardless of time or wirtschaftlichkeit.  Another factor to always keep in the back of your head, these indexes are also constructed based upon on the average salary of the region.  Then don’t forget currency exchange as the Euro is stronger still to the U.S. dollar.  The cost of living won’t feel that more expensive because I receive a salary in Euros; the greater purchasing power.  For one of my American colleagues, this point sucks because her contract states that she continue to be paid in U.S. dollars in spite she (and her family) are living in France.

Cost of Living: PHILADELPHIA

Cost of Living: PHILADELPHIA

I also feel these indexes should be taken with a grain of salt as two important factors are missing: taxes (another post soon to come) and health costs.

So what are the highlights?

  • The overall index for Indianapolis is higher than Philadelphia which is not that different from Kansas City.
  • The highest expenditure in Nice is Utilities (19%); whereas in the States it is Rent, Philadelphia (31%); Indianapolis (19%); Kansas City (22%).
  • The lowest expenditure is Clothing / Shoes on both sides of the ocean; Nice (6%); Philadelphia (4%); Indianapolis (5%); Kansas City (4%).
  • As far as lowest Transportation costs, Nice is only coming in 2nd with Kansas City as the winner.
  • In order to eat (combining Markets and Restaurants) Nice is the winner and Kansas City is the loser.  Clearly the cliché that most of my European colleagues tell me that it is more expensive here to eat out is a false one.
Cost of Living: INDIANAPOLIS

Cost of Living: INDIANAPOLIS

So what is my personal feeling?  Do I really feel poorer?  Well to answer that question, I really have to say give me a couple more years of data collection. 😉 This past year has been unique in that I have spent a lot money due to moving expenses.  Yes at the moment I feel my purchasing power is lower than when I was living in Philadelphia.  I have been cautious on my spending just because my nervous personality fears the unknown.  I loath the fact I have returned to car ownership and its related costs.  I agree with the above data that Utilities are expensive in France but my personal budget is still showing Rent as taking the biggest bite.  On the other hand I feel financially empowered by the affordable public transport and there are plenty of leisure things to do for free (the beach, street parties, fireworks, staring at the ocean from my terrace, etc.).  Let’s not forget I can explore several corners of Europe for little over 100 Euros – by plane.

Cost of Living: KANSAS CITY

Cost of Living: KANSAS CITY

The bottom-line is that I do have wirtschaftlichkeit and I am not drowning in debt unlike most people/governments.  For making such a drastic change in one’s life, I will wear my coat of pride.

If you really enjoy statistics such as these, I encourage you to participate in Numbeo.com.  The site is dependent on more and more people to enter data of their own budgets to better define the indexes.

Technical Note: If you are having trouble viewing the images,
you can click them to expand into another browser window.
Categories: Everyday Life

Love It or Leave It . . . It Is August!

1 August 2011 Leave a comment

Time is up!  Whatever you have left undone in your office, home or neighborhood – you are just going to have to leave it.  August is at the door and he wants you!  It is time for you to go to paradise.  I am not talking about some out-of-the-body experience here.  It is a temporary moment to truly breathe and relax (in theory) before September arrives with full gusto.

Is It August Yet?

Is It August Yet?

They have always said that everything shifts to lower gear in France during August.  I have to bare witness that yes, in fact, it does.  Whether you like it or not, life around you will take on a new energy – a pensive one.  Depending how you approach life, this change may not be bliss and actually raises the potential of some frustration.

At work, there is definite change of mood as the speed of all projects is alleviated.  The word deadline walks around without a proper definition.  Not to mention you walk down the hallways and there can easily be an eerie silence.  Things don’t come to a screeching halt, we are still an international IT firm that has clients looking at a different calendar and living in a different season.  So it is business as usual.  The colleagues who are in the office in a way look forward to this month as it is a great time to catch up on smaller projects.  There are fewer distractions.  August is also a time to exhale after the July rush to complete projects in order for everyone to go on vacation.

What about outside of work?  I have to adjust my way of life in several manners.  My bus (#230) that carries me to work every day now has a different summer schedule.  My wonderful 5:09 p.m. express bus after work is now a local bus.  During off-peak hours, the bus now only comes every hour instead of every 30 minutes.  I don’t blame them, there is plenty more room on the bus with fewer passengers – so why run as many buses on the road?

I have enjoyed that my neighborhood post office is open until 6:30 p.m. allowing me to pick up any letters or packages right when I get home.  Well I just saw the new hours posted for August and they are now closing at 5:00 p.m.  If I need their services, I will have to wait till a Saturday morning.

My favorite boulangerie has announced on their front door that come August 15th, they will be closed all together until September.  I will have to buy second grade bread?  I did what any good French person would have done – rolled my eyes and complained to the first person I met.

So where are my bus driver, postal worker and baker going on vacation this month?  In 2011, they are staying in France.  I have seen several news stories that the French are taking their vacation domestically.  With the talk of an economic uncertainty and the revolutions in the Arab world, the French are choosing to leave their passport in the closet and program their GPS to another region of France.  I can feel it first hand since Nice is a key tourist destination.  I don’t have any exact numbers but there feels like a lot more people this summer in Nice compared to last year.

Because Nice is a travel destination, there is a flip side to all this vacation energy.  For one month it is easier to do food shopping.  The little market across the street is now open all day Sunday instead of just a half day.  The supermarché down the street is now staying open an extra 30 minutes in the evening till 9:00 p.m.  Everyone has got to eat!

So how am I defining my August?  Well for one, I am taking all my Mondays off for the month.  I mean why bother working a full workweek?  Then the last week of August I am off to Bordeaux to meet a close friend and classmate at the Alliance Française de Philadelphie.  That trip will be another great opportunity to see another corner of France, home to one of the oldest wine growing regions.

I Discovered the Reason Why Wine Was Invented

25 July 2011 1 comment

So yes, I am exhaling this summer.  As I am deeply breathing in this fresh Mediterranean air, my glass of red wine is also breathing.  So what does one do once the Préfecture is happy, taxes are declared, car is paid off and you have safely secured your job in France?  Well you try to discover the joie de vivre that the French openly brag that they have mastered.  It is what gives this country its charm and making France still the #1 travel destination in the world.

There is nothing more pleasing than discovering new friendships, regardless of your passport or of your place of residence.  I finally made the commitment to myself to host my first apéritif at my apartment.  This summer has been a personal commitment to meeting people and a true integration.  I no longer have excuses of dealing with clichéd paperwork nor the abnormal mental exhaustion of where am I syndrome.

Off I went to the grocery store last week to buy the true essentials to compliment my room with a view.  I got plenty of savory items likes olives, nuts, chips and cornichons (pickles).  An absolute must is an array of cheeses; I selected a goat cheese, a Camembarre made in the northern region of Normandie and a fromage aux noix (a sweet cheese with nuts and a hint of honey).  I always make it clear to my French colleagues that the States have cheese products, not real cheese; a pleasant way to break the ice with any Gaul.   The final food item is a delicate saucisson (pork sausage) that I was even introduced to by my French friends in Philadelphia.  It is the perfect balance to your tray of finger food for a social gathering and isn’t spicy.  And yes, don’t use the word hors d’oeuvres  here, that is an American bastardization of the French language just like how entrée refers to your main course (?) at an American restaurant . . . sigh.

Apéritif 2011

Moi! and Fa- (Lebanese)

Then of course I go to the wine aisle to make my selection for the evening.  My own predisposition is to go straight for the Côte de Rhones, a medium pleasant red wine that can go with just about anything you serve.   I do take a risk with this selfish decision as everyone here during the summer licks up bottles of rosé like water – whether they are French or not.  It is THE summer beverage.  I have eaten out several times with my colleagues at work and they quickly demand a pichet of rosé while I boldly raise my hand and say with force – une verre de vin rouge s’il vous plait (a glass of red wine please).  Why do I hold out?  Is not the taste of a rosé sensual to my American taste buds?  Well, it isn’t the taste that turns me off, it’s the bloody headache that follows!  Without failure!   I come wondering to my desk after lunch only to stammer for a paracétamol (the French version of Tylenol).  Let’s be clear, if the Préfecture demands me to drink some rosé with them in order to renew my carte de séjour, I’m screwed.  But not to worry, I simply put in my invitation to my amis (friends) that if they want a rosé or white, they need to bring it themselves.  Snobbery?  Not really, it is typical when you are invited to an apéritif that you bring something to drink like wine or beer.  So I was forgiven for my red boldness and have some left over for myself. 😛

Finally the big day (Wednesday) came.  Immediately after work I ran to the boulangerie for several fresh baguettes, as stale bread is ground for expulsion from this country and barred from possible re-entry.   I quickly sliced the bread to place it as the final piece to my gastronomic painting.  I relaxed with my first glass of red for the evening with 20 minutes to spare before the first guest.

Apéritif 2011

From left to right: Me- (French), Ru- (French), Ch- (Lebanese), Ma- (French), Cy- (French), Ol- (Philippine), Moi! , An- (Slovakian), Fr- (Dutch) and Cl- (French).

Everything was set-up for what I planned as a simple mixing of various people I have encountered in the last year.  I have read in some French culture literature to be cautious when mixing the French at a party; they can be reserved among people they don’t know.  They have to warm up to guests.  Personally I find this far from the case and believe it to be a harsh generalization.  My guest list did include both colleagues from Amadeus and individuals I met through the power of Internet socialization like MeetUp.com and CouchSurfing.org.  I feel fortunate to say that I actually had to limit my guest list only for logistical reasons; my apartment is much smaller and could not hold as many people as I would have liked.  In any case, the world was well represented in my living room from France to Lebanon, from Slovakia to the Philippines.  Pleasantly to my ears, the conversations predominately stayed French and not English giving me the practice I hunger for.  We even played a make shift game of charades to keep the laughter continuous.  Proudly I say that my last guests didn’t leave till midnight knowing most everyone had to go to work the next day, including myself.

So now as I am washing my wine glasses in my sink, I can affirm that the smile on my face is a real one.  Since it is my duty as a French resident to support the French wine industry, there will be plenty more apéritifs to come.

Note: Just for the sake of security on the Internet,
I did not put the full names of my guests on the pictures. 
I can share those details with you privately but I at least put
their nationalities to give you the full scope of the evening.
Categories: Everyday Life

Where in the World is Scott Baker?

27 June 2011 Leave a comment

He is somewhere between virginally happy and prosaically normal.  Before I go any further I have to hold my head shamefully in the spotlight of this Mediterranean pageantry.  Almost 3 months of nothing to post?!!  Yes, yes I know.  I am sorry.  This stage has been silent for way too long.  Some of you may have gotten worried.  I may have disappointed my critics.  I may have put doubt in my fans of ever wanting to come back.  I may need to sell my front row tickets at half-price. In any case, I hope I have the charm that last longer than a good opiate.

So what have I been doing?  Where I have been going?  Well I have been on the last trek of this 1-year marathon to reach the finish line of fully becoming a resident of France.  What was the prize to show for it?  A piece of cheap plastic with my black-and-white photo.   I have climbed my mountain of paperwork for 2010 in order to renew my carte de séjour (work permit), declare my French taxes and file my American taxes.  My frugality recently paid off my car loan followed by another year’s worth of insurance.  Now that Twingo is 100% mine!  I have mastered my work commute patterns empowered by a regional bus pass that lasts a whole year!  I have allocated my profit sharing from Amadeus the way I want even though my letter some how got lost in the mail.  I raced to get that paperwork submitted to a FAX number that busier than Sarkosy’s personal cell phone.  Finally I am swimming solo with my work projects and meeting my deadlines.  I guess you could say I have gone through a second puberty to become an adult (again) with a different accent.

All of these tasks are happening while I am still without Internet and a fixed telephone line giving me free calls to the States.  I have been in this situation since February and the battle continues.  Am I having a true initiation to the French fraternity here?  Absolutely not; I simply picked a bad apple on this one.  Even my French colleges are shocked my situation continues.  So what is the root of my problem?  The telephone line into my apartment from the main box in the building is dead – literally dead.  You can’t send a signal through it.  Why?  No one knows.  It was way back in February that fateful evening I came home from work and discovered a blinking red light on my Internet modem.  So what is the resolution?  I won’t go into the boring details but I have a lawyer working on my case.  Even with the threat of a lawyer’s letter, I am amazed how my Italian rental agency is dragging their heels.

Var region of southern France

Var region of southern France

So was this marathon worth it? Well recently I was swimming in a desolate cove in the Var region of this Mediterranean coastline. There with some new friends, I was renewed with the emotion that a dream has been realized.  I can’t forget this fact as I keep my eyes forward.  Dreams are not easy, cheap or frivolous.  Dreams are our definitions; the sculptures of our souls.

So I answer the question with a question.  Have you ever met someone who ran a marathon and regretted it?

Categories: Everyday Life

Rude Awakenings in Paris

15 April 2011 3 comments

I find myself in a dubious peril.  I am losing the ability to use pronouns properly – in english.    After being in France for over 9 months and having to re-apply for my yearly visa to work (already?), I trip over my tongue on which side of “we” do I put myself on?  I have consistently had my affinity for French culture and integrated well on certain aspects.   I don’t hesitate to put myself on the French side when it comes to:

We always wait till the meal is over before having our coffee.
We never eat with our fingers unless it is tear off a piece of bread.

Yet there are other times when I clearly state Well that is us Americans for you! during particular discussions of business, economics or politics.  For better or for worse, I have an American passport, an American education and an American desire for change.

I recently passed three weekends in a row in Paris, leaving behind Côte d’Azur and the banality of my job.  It was also through these travels that I became often unsettled that maybe they, the French, are loosing their identity?  And if so, am I truly claiming a new identity?  And yes, this discussion will be an economic one.

I start it off with the familiar presence of Starbuck’s in the City of Light.  I have always had mixed feelings about Starbucks and I won’t deny that I frequented the franchise in Philadelphia.  In some regards they try to hold to liberal, European values such as health insurance for all employees and shutting down all their stores world-wide for a few hours (back in 2009) to retrain their staff on how to make a proper cup of espresso.  Yet we cannot overlook their American consumerism and gluttony.  Later this year they will be offering a larger 4th cup size similar to the famous 7-11 Big Gulp for soda.   (Really?  Do consumers need that much coffee?)  As much it was admirable that Starbuck’s did shut down world-wide to learn again how to make a proper espresso, when is the last time anyone heard of someone ordering one in a Starbuck’s?  It is always Frappachino this and Café Mixto that, with double-chocolate and soy milk that only comes from obscure place like Alberta, Canada.  Plus Starbuck’s is about being on-the-go, known for its drive-thrus and having stores in NYC without any chairs! (what? you wanted to enjoy that coffee?)  So how are the French adapting to Starbucks?  Well as I was enjoying my salade de chevre chaud in a nice Parisian brasserier in the Latin Quarter with my Notre Dame alumni friend, he clearly told me France is Starbuck’s best European market.  The actions of the young Parisians holding their goblets of Starbucks as they catch the next metro only confirmed his words.  Does France really want this?  Do I really want this?  I want Starbucks to stay home, in the U.S.  I left that behind for good reason.  I don’t want them to become part of this “we“.

So far, Nice does not have a Starbuck’s. Yet.  I proudly enjoy my little noisette at the coffee shop down the street as I read the local newspaper.  It is with deep pleasure to know this operation is privately owned and only knows how to make a measly five types of coffee (café, noisette, café au lait, cappuccino and maybe something else).  Don’t even think about ordering it to go, they don’t even have plastic containers for you to do that!  Just sit down and enjoy a coffee in a real, porcelain cup.

Of course it isn’t just Starbuck’s, there is the good old monster of McDonald’s.  It was recently in the paper here in Nice that the mayor celebrated the opening of their 5th McDonald’s with a live jazz band and champaign.  Champaign?  Is it really all that necessary?  France is also McDonald’s best European market in spite of initial political resistance.  I am still perplexed how all this is measured as economic prosperity.  Even more perplexing is how the French with their history of gastronomic cuisines could adapt so easily to these mass-produced edibles.  Is not the McCafé marketing campaign claiming McDonald’s can do a good espresso like Starbuck’s a slap to the Marianne’s face? (Remember, the French call their country by a first name.)

Moi as a French Burner!

Moi as a French Burner!

It isn’t just about food, there is also the culture side of things.  You may have heard of Burning Man, an artistic infusion of people wearing wacky clothing that happens in the middle of desert in the southwest.  Before you know it, you have a little city of free-flowing, free loving Americans creating modern art.  The concept is admirable but if you aren’t into sweating under the sun to build your art with fellow strangers, it shouldn’t be on your vacation list of must see’s before you die.  I did have the pleasure of going to one of the first French Burners in Paris the first weekend I was there.  The French Burners is the official spin-off from the Burning Man on French soil.  It was a one-of-a-kind experience as you had to dress up in a costume to be allowed into the event; normal everyday clothing was banned.  As there were some interesting artists (performance art, dancers, painters, etc.) the evening really become more a rave, those secret dance clubs that would appear in abandoned warehouses during the 90’s.  As much as art is close to my heart and I don’t want to limit these culture events, my mind still wandered to the current dilemma.  I am not sure having everyone for a few hours in a dance hall by the Moulin Rouge is achieving the same thing as a week in the American desert.  That’s them and this is us. Or is it that’s us and this is them?  In any case, French Burners is checked off my list and I will be going back to the Louvre, something the French know how to do.

So what is it that I am missing about the American “we“?  One thing I will admit is having a good Sunday brunch.  I have several memories with my closest friends on the east coast over a casual Sunday brunch.  It is the one time in American culture where one can unwind and reflect on the past week.  In a more unpolished version, a time to catch up on the week’s gossip.  So I miss that opportunity to have a really good omelette with salsa, pancakes with real maple syrup, bacon on the side and a big cup of American coffee.  I heard rumor at work that someone tried to open an American brunch restaurant here in the Côte d’Azur thinking there was enough expats to support it.  Sadly it failed.  So here in Paris, where everything is possible, I met a good French friend at the famous Breakfast In America restaurant where I had to wait in a long for a table as the British guys in front of me drank from their Starbuck’s paper venti sized coffee cups.  I have to say, I was impressed with the restaurant as they exactly knew how to serve an American brunch and got what I was searching for.  The staff was mostly Americans who could speak French which poses a linguistic dilemma on how to place your order (en français?).  I was so tickled pink that I got an American cup of coffee with cream in the classic white mug nostalgic of American diners.  The line was worth the wait as I enjoyed my southwestern omelette and short stack of pancakes on the side.  Interestingly I had realized my transformation by the end of the meal, I no longer liked the American coffee that I thought that I was missing; I barely finish my cup.  Suddenly I realized I wanted to end the meal with my traditional noisette (espresso with a little steamed milk) instead.  I craved it.  Oui, oui.  I stopped being the American “we” for a second.

My last weekend in Paris was spent on the outskirts of Disneyland Paris.  It was a gorgeous campus of a Marriott village that a close American friend rented for a week.  It wasn’t a hotel but a series of apartments with full kitchens, spacious bathrooms and a pond with a white swan.  It really was a beautiful and makes a great first impression.  Of course the clients were mostly families anxiously waiting for Disneyland Paris to open for the day.  After a few excursions to the royal cities of Fontainebleau, Reims and the city center of Paris, the Marriott village’s true American charm shone through.  The first American element is the fact that it is in the middle of nowhere and requires all guests to rent a car to really enjoy France.  They did provide a shuttle to the nearest suburban train station but it was way too far to walk.  The village felt so isolated; so not French.  Then the fact that the apartments were so spacious, including the bathrooms.  Is it not part of the European charm to sit on the toilet and to have the bathroom sink right there in your face?  Not here.  My own shower could have held 3 other people.  Then finally what is the history of this architectural gem of a village (each apartment was designed at least with a unique look to avoid banality)?  Well nothing really.  They were built  for you to financially support the Disney empire next door.  This place wasn’t of a place of royalty, religious inspiration or dedication to the fabrication of something unique . . . it was built to support consumerism, a polished product of the American way.

So am I bitter?  No.  Just sobering up to the reality that is in front of me.  I recently read the book Seducing the French by Richard Kuisel, a historian who attempts to explain the delicate Franco-American relationship since World War II.  France’s ego was devastated by the two World Wars and forced her to take a side role on the world’s stage.  A precious point to comprehend before digesting current French politics.  The author cites brilliant examples of the that’s them and this is us conflict. For one, he describes France’s attempt to outlaw Coca-Cola for supposed health reasons in the 50’s (Coca-Cola was so determined to make money they confided a way to ship their product through Morocco to by-pass French port authorities).  Then later U.S. Government renamed the famous side order to Freedom Fries in the cafeteria (yea, the recent episode with the Iraqi War was actually a second occurrence).  The French always had an overt disdain towards American consumerism primarily because they didn’t want to fall into the same trap.  That book was the catalyst to my current state.  I am witnessing, breathing and living that conflict.  Something we all go through of determining when to claim individual/cultural identity and when to embrace team spirit.  But then, which team are you on?

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Personal logistic note: Yes, my blog has been less frequent recently because I still do not have Internet at my apartment.  I appreciate your patience and following but I have taken some legal action to get my telephone line replaced.  Another story to soon share!

Categories: Everyday Life, Travels