Friday, August 11, 2017

Short story ~ On the importance of learning to drive an automobile

Coming from America where nearly everyone of legal age has their license, we're sometimes taken aback to learn how many people don't drive and don't own a car. We are sometimes surprised by the number of Parisiennes who do not have a driver's license.  Normally there is no need for a license as public transportation in Europe is fantastic and a person can easily get around without resorting to driving an automobile.

One day over lunch a friend shared an interesting story of why she has her driver's license.

After the second world war Sylvie's father absolutely insisted she learn how to drive.  By her account her father was a domineering man and never took no for an answer. Without question she submitted to her father's will and went through the process of learning how to drive.

The story actually begins at the outset of the war.  On May 10, 1940, the German Army started its invasion of France.  The heavily fortified Maginot Line was France's primary defense.  There was, however, a gap between the north end of the Maginot Line and the sea.  The allies felt prepared and plans to defend the gap were put into action.

In only one location were the French and English defenses somewhat weak.  That was in the Ardennes forest.  It is a rugged area and the allies felt the Germans would have a tough time getting through.  Yet, that's exactly where the Germans succeeded.  By June 14 Paris had fallen to the Nazis and the occupation of France had begun.

Sylvie's father was French, but he spoke German and Czech fluently.  He'd been captured by the Germans and spent the duration of the war in prison.  It was in prison where he picked up the additional language skills.

Years later her father had a story to tell that related to his insistence that she learn how to operate an automobile.

When the Germans swept around the north end of the Maginot Line they pinned the French Army against the inside their own line of defense.  Trapped against their own wall many French were killed.  Somehow Sylvie's father escaped that fate.  The company her father was attached to knew the Germans were coming and naturally tried make their way to freedom.

There were two jeeps in the company and they should have been pressed into immediate use.  There was one small problem.  Not one single person in the entire company knew how start the jeeps.  Neither did anyone in the company kn0w how to drive.  So there they sat, unable to move, waiting for the Germans to arrive and kill them.

For whatever reason the Germans, instead, captured the trapped unit and sent them to prison.

Sylvie's father vowed he would never be be unable to escape danger in this way ever again.  After the war he learned to drive.  And to give his family the best opportunity to escape if needed he insisted that Sylvie, too, learn now to drive.


en direction Nangis...

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Short Story ~ On being an immigrant

As we've gotten to know people we find they seen to enjoy talking about the little things in their lives.  I now realize we've heard quite a number of these stories and that some of them might be worth sharing here.

We'll start with a simple story.  It's one that we can't stop smiling about.

A couple of our French friends recently moved out of France.  They left the EU.  They moved just across the border to Switzerland.

One might think that since this is Europe that perhaps the Swiss do things similarly to the way surrounding countries do.  One might believe that the details of daily living might not be all that much different from one side of the border to another.  One might think that trash is trash and will be disposed of in similar ways.  Well, we've recently learned we would be wrong on all accounts.

For example, the monsieur was crossing the border with two boxes.  Since Switzerland is not part of the Schengen Zone, everyone entering or leaving the country has to go through immigration and customs.

On one particular day, our friend was transporting several boxes. One was filled with papers and documents.  The other was filled with food.  The madame quickly realized that things cost a lot more in Switzerland than they do in France and she wanted some of her favorite snacks.

The Swiss border guard asked "what's all this?"   Our friend said that it was his wife's things and he shrugged his shoulders as if to ask "how would I know?"  The guard gave a Male's Knowing Nod and allowed our friend to enter the country.

Trash bags are things we typically find at the supermarket.  We seldom think about them, other than when they're full that we tip them into the bin and we (hopefully) never see them again.  But things work differently in Switzerland than they do in the rest of the civilized world.

To be collected all garbage sacks must be blazoned with the city's name.  If there is no name (of the correct font, shape, sizes, etc, etc, etc, your garbage will not be collected.  You read that right.  Your trash remains your's if it's not put in the correct bag.

Off to the market went la madame in search of the official city approved name of the city emblazoned garbage sacks.  In normally civilized countries a person find such things easily and quickly down the aisle maked "Household Items."  Not so in Switzerland.  In fact, the magic garbage sacks were nowhere to be found.

So where on earth does one find garbage bags?

Therein lay the crux of this story.  As an immigrant you might not really know such details of daily life and living.  Yes, even here in Europe things can be radically different when traveling between non-EU member countries.  Days went by and our friends could not find where to buy the proper bags.  In the meantime the unlabeled bags with their trash were filling up.

Our friends told us that they have a new appreciation for what we went through when we quit the US for France.  They now understand just how long it can take to become accustomed to the ways and culture of a different country.  Trying to sort out what to do, how, and when can be nerve-wracking.

To solve the immediate problem of accumulating garbage, our friends drove the sacks across the border, through customers and past immigration without being questions, and dove into France where the garbage was duly deposited at a French waste facility.

A few days later the answer arrived regarding the question of where to find the proper city approved city name emblazoned garbage bags.  In this part of Switzerland one finds such simple garbage/trash/holding/things at the post office.

C'est logique, n'est pas?



en direction Nangis...

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Cher Claude...

Claude died recently.  He suffered from cancer, but held on to life for a remarkably long time.  We didn't know him well, but he played a very important role in our lives here in Paris.

Claude's wife comes to our French/English conversation group.  One day Judith mentioned that we had been rejected by the French healthcare.  One thing led to another and some months later we found ourselves in their apartment.  Claude had kindly offered to help us sort through our correspondence to see if he could figure out how we could succeed where earlier we had failed.

After thirty or forty minutes of conversation, reading, thinking, and more conversation, Claude said he felt he'd figured it out.  It was recommended that we do two things.  First, apply for health care after les vacances in juillet et août.  Second, from January 1st of the year until the time we applied, Claude told us to not leave France.

For our first attempt at getting France's single payer health insurance we'd traveled for four days outside the country and our passports had a stamp in them that showed this.  It turns out that even though you can ask for health insurance after living here three months, one of the details is that one really needs to live here continuously for six months from the beginning of the civil calendar which start January 1st of the new year.  Add to this that the French state goes on holiday starting in July and suddenly we realized that it was unlikely anyone would process our application until September.  So we stayed in France from January thru August and submitted our request as soon as everyone was back from vacation.

Thanks to Claude, we now have our Cartes Vitales.

He had wanted us to see where he'd grown up and to show us what's left of the old quartier.  It sounded interesting, but we soon heard that Claude's health was failing and that the doctors did not know why.  Unfortunately we never saw Claude again.

The funeral was held at Pere Lachaise.  Anyone who follows this blog already knows how much I love the old cemetery.  Some of my photographic work of the site was published a couple years ago by Lenswork Magazine.  Jude and I spend time there on nice days just to enjoy the peace and quiet.  We never thought we'd be there to rend honneur to someone we knew.

Just this week Claude's wife came to the conversation groupe and asked Judith and I if we would go with her one last time to the maison de retraite where he spent his last days.  She wanted to light a candle and to walk around a bit.

It was a warm and sunny day and some of the residents were in the courtyard.  Such a strange experience it was.  Coming from America where death and dying are such difficult subjects, what we saw was profoundly different.  We saw how tender and caring family members were with the dying.  We listened to their sweet and engaging conversations.  We could hear traffic on the streets, but it was muffled.  The songs of birds drifted down from the trees.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Patent Medicine - take two swigs and don't call me in the morning

Jude and I spent the month of March in Rome.  Why?  Why not?  Afterall, four weeks in the apartment we rented cost us what two weeks in the same place would've.  There's just something about those steep monthly discounts AirBnB sometimes offers that are simply too darned attractive to avoid.

The night we arrived in Rome we were bushed.  We needed to find somewhere to eat and a restaurant just down the street from us seemed like it might be OK.  Even though we were the only people there the food was edible and we were happy to find sustenance before we collapsed into a Failing Spring-Sprung Old Bed.

After dinner I asked the waiter what kind of digestif they might be able pour me.  The waiter told me that Grappa was very popular around those parts.  To me Grappa is like Evil Lighter Fluid From Hell.  The expression on my face must've clearly transmitted my thoughts.  The waiter suggested he couldn't stand Grappa either and didn't understand the craze for the stuff.  So, I ask, what is your preferred after dinner libation?  *answered* OK, then.  I'll try some.

Do you remember Patent Medicines?  Me neither.  A bit before our time, don't you think?  Still, I remember reading out the Great American Swindle Lick-r.

Turns out, Americans weren't the only crazies on the planet at the time.  European doctors developed and offered for sale various remedies for nearly any and every condition described in medical texts of the day.  These "remedies" were based on alcohol infused with all manner of nasty things.  Typical ingredients included plant roots and tree bark and leaves and flowers and sometimes fruits and a few things to make the drink almost palatable, such as honey or surprisingly bitter tasting orange skins.

In modern times these remedies are still made.  True story.  They've not been outlawed over here.  They simply changed the name from medicine to something less obviously false.

The Italians call theirs les Amari.  That's plural for a single Amaro.  In English we call these Bitters.

We knew none of these things that first night.  All we knew is that one sip cured a stomach problem Jude was experiencing.  As for myself, the first sip was as unto a revelation, a surprise, no, a shock, and like any good drug, um, drink, I was hooked.  Happiness!  The patent medicine had worked it's advertised cure-all magic.

During our month in Rome we did as (some, perhaps few) Romans do and took an Amaro as a digestif after many dinners.  We tried perhaps a dozen different kinds of les Amari.  We developed and refined our tastes and preferences based on direct, personal experience, and surprisingly quickly cured ailments.

Americans might now bitters as something you add to mixed drinks or cocktails.  The Italians drink the stuff neat.  Most Amari we tried were drunk at room-temp.  But one Amaro is recommended to be served well chilled.  Instead, I take it at room temperature and love it's warm, full-bodied flavors, regardless of what the company recommends.

I've since tried several non-Italian bitters and find them thin and with underdeveloped flavors.   Thus far in our limited experiences the Italians brew the very best, most complex, perfectly beautiful tasting 1800's style Patent Medicines.  Fortunately there are three Italian specialty stores near our Paris home.  We're hoping they can be mined for a few good Amari when our current stocks the medicine run dry.

One Amaro in particular appealed to us.  It had been served in a restaurant located next to our apartment in Rome. I searched stores and markets and lick-r shops high and low for some.  We visited two of the highest internet recommended Amari outlets and we visited supermarkets and side-street hovels looking for our preferred remedy.  Les amari were easy to find, but the plonk we were looking for was nowhere to be found.

It came down to our second to the last night in Rome and we were getting desperate.  Nothing had turned up.  So we went to the waiter at our favorite restaurant and asked where we could find an Amaro  ****.  His eyes lit up and we were told to stop looking.  Don't buy it in the stores! *surprise*  He didn't want us to buy from anyone but himself.  I tried to tell him it was impossible to find, but I stopped myself mid-sentence and simply nodded and smiled happily at his suggestion.  His restaurant would sell us a bottle for a Good Price (the first instance when we heard the famous Italian phrase a Good Price).  The catch was that we couldn't buy the bottle just then (between lunch and dinner).  We would have to wait and ask for a bottle as we asked for our facture (bill) after dinner later that night.

We'd read that every Roman business transaction important and unimportant took place on a personal level.  If you know someone, they might be able to help you.  If you needed a new car or were looking for a new apartment, you talked to those around you and listened to your family and friends for their advice, counsel, and guidance.  Such was our experience with this particular Amaro.  It's rare.  It's very good.  And, it seems, it's only available if you know who to talk to.

Amari!!!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Healthcare...

Jude recently spent 4 hours in ER at a local hospital here in Paris.  A couple weeks later a bill for the visit arrived.  It was less than 28Euro.  This included medications, doctors analysis, and treatment.

The cost of the visit comes as something of a surprise.  It's a pleasant surprise, to be sure, but still, it's a surprise.  Ten years ago in the USA we paid over 1200USD for a very similar ER visit.  The US ER costs these days are surely higher, right?  How is the number one ranked healthcare system in the world able to charge so little?  One possible answer is that the French government is actively involved in negotiating the best trade-off between cost and quality.  Another possible answer is that healthcare in Europe is not run as a for-profit business.  However one looks at it, the costs of being tended to are significantly less here than in America.

Jude did a little research and one day said we needed to apply for French healthcare.  What she found was that part of being an immigrant in France includes the right to ask to participate the in single-payer state-sponsored health care system.  It's called l'assurance medicale or securite sociale.  When successful, the insured persons receive their carte vitale, which is the insurance card issued by the French government.  It's not free, but it might be a lot less than what a person pays in America.

In our case the process took us two years to complete.  This isn't "normal" in that the process should have taken only three to six months after meeting certain basic conditions.  We were turned down the first time we submitted our papers and that cost is over a year to figure out where we went wrong.  The devil was in the details.

French law grants immigrants the right to ask for their carte vitale three months after arriving.  That's how one of the laws reads.  But there's a second law that says an immigrant needs to reside here six months after the start of the civil calendar.  The civil calendar starts on January 1.  So you can start the process three months after January 1, but we needed to prove we lived here at least six months over the course of the year.

This means that when they ask you for scanned pages from your passport, if you have a stamp from a non-Schengen country, you might be denied your health insurance request.  This happened to us.  We went to a friend's wedding and cleared out our Plan B storage unit back in the States in May, five months into the French civil calendar year.

Even though we hadn't left the country for the two prior years, our health insurance request was not valid since we couldn't prove we'd been here six months in the year we filed our request.  A friend of Jude's has a very kind husband who helped us understand what went wrong.  In retrospect is all seems so simple.

In short, here's what we did.

  1. We visited the local CMU office and asked for an application.  We filled it out, attached the requested documents, and mailed the application to the address found on the application.  
  2. We answered the French state's further requests for documentation.  In our second attempt we were asked to provide two additional pieces of information.  One of these was a request for our tax information.  It was our income that was used to calculate what we pay.  I had wrongly assumed the calculation of what we were to pay was what we spent living here, but it's not.  This was an important distinction for us.  What we spent was more than what we earned in interest.  Happily, the number on the letter was given to our doctors and the benefit of the French healthcare system was immediately realized (by reducing our already very low out of pocket expenses). 
  3. Some time after we received our letter which stated we were being granted health insurance, we were asked to send our photo to another part of the French processing system.  Within a month we received our cartes vital, complete with the aforementioned photo.


Sculpture ~ Paris, France

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

So you say you want to move here...

Let's say you have your reasons for moving some place else.  Let's say you've chosen France as your destination.  Well, today's your lucky day.  Um, well, most likely not.  However you see the outcome of your day (luck vs no luck), we've been encouraged to share our experiences in following the immigration process to legally live here.

As background, we are retired from our working lives.  We have what we hope are sufficient financial resources to live in retirement.  We were looking to "get out" while the "getting was good."  More properly said, we wanted to experience something new and different and knew that wherever we landed we'd be putting down new, perhaps strong, roots.  Leaving the US for us was not a halfway, uncertain thing.

We recognized immediately that we would become immigrants.  And in becoming immigrants we made a conscious decision to set aside our American "exceptionalism" and to try as best we could to follow all of the rules and laws of immigration of our new home country.  We did not want to run any risk of being told we could not live here.

Here's an overview of the process we've followed -

  • Researched immigration requirements through a French Consulate website
  • Discovered we could not simply move to France on our travelers visa (3 months automatically granted to US citizens).  We had to apply for our long stay visas through a French Consulate in our country of origin.
  • Rented an apartment for three months (so we could show the contract to the French Consulate officials)
  • Purchased one-way airline tickets (to show the French Consulate officials we meant business)
  • Visited the French Consulate nearest us with all of the documentation they asked for on their website
  • Received our passports with a large page filling Visa sticker (valid for one year)
  • Sold our home in the US
  • Boarded a plane and left
After landing in France
  • Greeted our short stay apartment owners, went through the contract and details they felt important to point out and moved in
  • Sent required documentation to the immigration authorities and received our appointment time/date
  • Visited OFII for a medical exam and receipt of a second page filling sticker (seems like it's good for a long time)
  • Opened a French bank account (to pay for utilities)
  • Found a long term (in our case furnished) apartment and moved in
Eight months on...
  • Made our first appointment with the Prefecture de Police
  • Gathered required documentation and had translated into French, using a state approved translator ONLY, all documents originating in English
  • Visited the Prefecture de Police and received a récépissé that granted us permission to remain in France until our Carte de Séjour (Visiteur) had been prepared a few months later
  • Picked up our Carte de Séjour (Visiteur - valid for one year)
Annually thereafter - 
  • Make an appointment with the Prefecture de Police
  • Gather required documentation and have translated into French, using a state approved translator ONLY, all documents originating in English
  • Visit the Prefecture de Police and receive a récépissé that grants us permission to remain in France until our Carte de Sejour (Visiteur) had been prepared a few months later
  • Pick up our Carte de Séjour (Visiteur - valid for one year)
We understand that after ten years the French state might grant us without our asking a version of the Carte de Séjour that is valid for ten years.  They also may allow us to apply for the ten year Carte de Séjour after five years, but we have yet to test this.

Reading the list of steps we've followed to living legally here hides the very many details and small dramas that arise at seemingly each and every stage.  There are language issues.  There are process issues (usually stemming from our lack of understanding of why something is being asked for).  There are personality issues (though these are very rare and we've only encountered two, perhaps three, nasty fonctionnaires in all our time here).

Taking all this into consideration you might wonder if it's worth it?  Afterall, a made famous by TV person who lives here has been known to advise Americans to not worry about all that silliness and just come live here without a proper visa.  Their contention is that the authorities leave Americans alone and won't bother them.

For us there are two ways of answering the question of "is it worth it."  The first is very practical.  When you look at the list in it's entirety it's easy to forget that all of this unfolds over the months and years.  There is plenty of time at each stage to do what is needed.  Sure, it can feel sometimes like you'd rather be out enjoying the day than sitting at home working through all the things immigrants are demanded of.  But if your experience is anything like our's, there will be plenty of time in a day to do the needful.

The second way of looking at it is from the perspective of emotion and experience.  When looked at this way, following all the details of processing an immigrant's stay here is a small price to pay for living in a truly civilized place.  The quality of food and drink is second to none.  Art museums, monuments, and cultural experiences simply can not be duplicated anywhere else.  The beauty of our surroundings extends many times from the biggest, grandest things all the way down to the smallest detail.  And then there's the people.  After you get to know the locals and after the locals get to know you, friendships can bond you in a way never before imagined.  For us it's been very much worth the effort to stay "legal" in living here.  The peace of mind is worth every minute spent on the details required by the French state.

We took a look elsewhere around Europe to see what their immigrant processes were.  We wanted to see how difficult it might be to move to a different country (the French Carte de Sejour is only good for living in France).  What we found is that the processes are largely the same.  Though we're sure there are differences in the details.  For instance, when looking at the visa requirements for Portugal there seem to be no requirement to have English documents translated by a state licensed professional.

We hope this blog entry helps.  We can't vouch for how this would go for you.  We're not immigration professionals, so take all this with a grain of salt.  Still, we would like to give people some idea of what they might go through and to give them hope that it will all work out OK in the end.


Autumn in Paris

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Profound? Clever? Not so much...

I wanted to end the year with a series of profound and clever utterances, but I can't.  Others have already said what I wanted to say.  Others have already noted the many obvious things that have happened in 2016.

A rather large number of good musicians died.  Good actors and actresses died.  In fact, a whole lot of notable folks have passed to the other side.

In our little corner of the world it seems like things have been anything but fine and good.

English friends who live in south-western France experienced something traumatic when L's (I'll use letters in place of names) hip failed.  We hear they're OK, but life was in a moment changed.

In our French/English conversation group we've made quite a few friends.  An American couple whose families are involved in US politics and international diplomacy are facing challenges around R's cancer.  We hear it may be a treatable form and can only hope for the best.  They're not coming back to Paris until this is resolved.

A couple we spent Sainte-Sylvestre with realized the seriousness of their challenges when C was diagnosed with metastasized cancer.  We're not sure how much life is left in this wonderful human being and it makes us feel sad just thinking about it.

In our apartment building, a couple with whom we've shared a few aperos haven't had all that great a time, either.  T's mother very recently passed away and things have been rather quiet chez eux.

A couple who we are close with have had a terrible year.  First J's brother was diagnosed with cancer and died.  Then J's sister came down with something terminal.  These were followed all too quickly by M's (J's spouse) stroke and subsequent need of a pacemaker.

It feels like we're all falling apart.

No, not everything this past year has been horrible.  Still, it's the negative things in life that seem play so strongly on our thoughts, feelings, and memory.


Paris ~ Endroit au Coin de la Rue