Happy New Year!

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I‘ve been thinking that there would be time to post an end of the year letter like the very nice ones I’ve been receiving in the mail – but no, the clock has almost run out.

We started 2014 in Paris, celebrating with our American friends Martha and Terry and French friend Pascale and her mother (German friend) Barbara. Later in January we were off to see Van Morrison in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and along the way learned about “the Troubles” between Catholics and Protestants, about the building of the Titanic and its fateful voyage, and got to see some of the rugged coastline.

In February we searched for a new apartment and then moved just a few blocks to a larger, quieter place in our same Latin Quarter neighborhood.

Our house in Provence

Our house in Provence

In March we received a surprise invitation from our Seattle friend Laurie Greig to come stay at her friend’s house in the small town of Saint-Cannat in Provence. We toured Mount Sainte Victoire where Cézanne did much of his painting, visited the market at Saint Rémy, and spent a day visiting the Roman ruins and amphitheater at Orange, as well as touring a bit of the côte du Rhone wine country nearby. We also celebrated our 25th Anniversary with dinner at a wonderful hotel in Saint-Cannat.

In April we made it through the difficult process of preparing to renew our residence permit for a second year in France, though the permit itself wasn’t ready until July. Later in April we saw Randi Strong Petersen, who came for a few days after visiting family in England.

In May our friend Don Merry arrived, and after a couple days in Paris we went to Barcelona, where we spent a lot of time getting to know the works of architect Antoni Gaudi as well as seeing many other sights. After that Brenda and Don headed off on a further great adventure, first to steamy Sevilla and then to fabulous Madrid. I went back to Paris hoping to catch up on a few things, but my mother passed away, so I made plans to go back to her home in Pekin, Illinois. Brenda and I flew to the US for her funeral shortly after Brenda returned from Spain.

Rocamadour

Rocamadour

In late May, just after our return from the US, Rob Gelder and Brian Johnson came to Paris for a few days of sight seeing, and then we went with them on the train to Bordeaux, and then by car into the Perigord region of central France, where we stayed in a 400 year old cottage in the small village of Berbigueres. This was a fabulous trip that we have yet to report on in our blog. The first day we saw the 17,000 year old cave paintings at Lascaux, and afterwards spent each day on a new foray to see the various famous castles in the area, one example being the cliffside city at Rocamadour, a legendary Christian pilgrimage site built in the 1100s. Five liters of very good Bergerac (the town where Cyrano came from) wine in a box from the local coop cost 8 Euros, and most nights we cooked wonderful dinners at home (that would be Rob and Bryan and Brenda who did the cooking).

Brenda and I went out for Paris’s popular all night party, Fête de la Musique, on the June 21st. Later in June we made the first of two trips to Normandy with our French friends Cat and Jacques. We stayed at Deauville and visited other coastal towns along the Normandy beaches, namely Trouville, Cabourg, and Honfleur. Jacques and I went swimming in the chilly Atlantic – water temperatures were about 60 degrees F.

In July we saw Keb Mo at a great small venue concert in Paris – our seats about 20 feet from him on stage. Brenda got to shake hands with him as he headed off stage. One beautiful summer day we visited Monet’s garden at Giverny. Another summer night we had dinner with Pierre, the Fromager at our local food market. Afterwords we walked with him along the Seine and took in the activities at Paris Plages, the local summer festival where the highway along the river is turned into a beach for people to come and enjoy if they cannot leave town for the customary summer vacation. We also spent a day with Cat and Jacques at the medieval village of Provins, south of Paris, where we saw demonstrations of falconry and jousting, as well as a full scale play of the knights defeating the invaders in an exciting demonstration of horsemanship and fighting skills.

Vaux de Vicomte

Vaux de Vicomte

In August we were off to Normandy again for another weekend, this time staying at Étretat, a small village with high cliffs sheltering a small beach. It was a popular site for some of the Impressionist painters, as well as another place for Jacques and I to swim in the Atlantic, this time a few degrees warmer. Also we spent a day at the spectacular Vaux le Vicomte, the Château of Nicholas Fouquet, superintendent of finances for Louis XIV. When the King saw Fouquet’s Chateau at a party held in the King’s honor, Fouquet was arrested and imprisoned for life for alleged misappropriation of public finances. Louis XIV hired Fouquet’s team of architects and landscapers to create Versailles. Later in August Brenda headed to the US to see her mom in Spokane, Washington, for 11 days.

When she returned to Paris in September, we headed off again with Cat and Jacques on a new adventure, a two week vacation in the Dominican Republic. I never imagined that I would be going there. It was our first experience with an all inclusive resort vacation, and we had a great time. We also made an effort to go into the cities and experience the local flavor of the island.

My brother Peter at a Christmas concert at Saint Chappelle

My brother Peter at a Christmas concert at Saint Chappelle

In early October, my sister-in-law Jan Hiatt and nephew Alex Nelson visited us in Paris for a few days as part of Alex’s corporate sabbatical. They were the first of my family to make it to Paris. Later in the month my brother Peter spent a few days with us, and he was back again in early December, now that he has work that regularly brings him to England.

In November we renewed more easily our residence permit for another year in France. With the help of Mon Ami Andy, an agency that helps English speakers with real estate and residence issues, we now have the process fairly under control.

Getting ready to eat the meal we had prepared at La Cuisine

Getting ready to eat the meal we had prepared at La Cuisine

On the holidays of Valentines Day, July 4th, Thanksgiving, and during the Christmas season, we went to dinner cooking classes at La Cuisine, an excellent highly recommended cooking school located near us. We’ve continued throughout the year to take French lessons twice a week, and though it seems like we’ve learned a lot, there is still a wide gulf between what we know and what I would describe as fluency. It has been a humbling experience.

Through the year we’ve had numerous other visitors whom we’ve spent the day or perhaps met for dinner. We enjoyed every moment with them and hope you’ll get in touch with us if you are ever in Paris. We love sharing our experiences and local knowledge. I’ve failed to mention numerous art exhibits and galleries we’ve visited, and many many walks around town just to enjoy life here. Throw in going to the gym every other day, the local market three times a week, and keeping up with friends and obligations in the United States, and life is pretty busy.

For the second year in a row we celebrated Christmas with our friends Cat and Jacques and their family. We’ve seen them perhaps once or twice a week, often for a movie and usually for dinner, all year long, and without their help and interest our experience here might be entirely different, for they have provided a true window into what it’s like to be French. Many evenings we have played highly competitive games of scrabble in French, men against the women – and the women usually win.

After a second year in Paris we’ve made some decisions. We’re headed back to the US in February to fully retire (or maybe it’s “more fully retire”), sell the house, consolidate all of our stuff, simplify our finances and return to Paris in July for another year. This continues to be a great adventure.

It’s almost New Year’s Eve. We hope that you and your family have a healthy and happy 2015. Bonne Année!

Brenda and Hugh

Marion Nelson – 1922-2014

Marion and Bill heading off into the fog at Mount Saint Helens in 2005.

Marion and Bill heading off into the fog at Mount Saint Helens in 2005.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. This, the start of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, is also a principle in statistics. From Wikipedia – the Anna Karenina principle describes an endeavor in which a deficiency in any one of a number of factors dooms it to failure. Consequently, a successful endeavor (subject to this principle) is one where every possible deficiency has been avoided.

My mother Marion Nelson died last night. She passed away after 91 years. I looked up the meaning of “passed away” – it is a euphemism for the act of dying – a nice way of saying something that is unpleasant to discuss head on. She was at her nursing home in Pekin, Illinois. My brothers Peter and Chris were at her side. I was here in Paris – there wasn’t time to get there, and the situation was uncertain. I spent a restless night and didn’t really perceive any of my feelings except relief that her struggle and suffering were finally over. But I knew that if I waited some idea would come to me about the meaning of all this.

Mom and I shared the view that every possible deficiency should be avoided. I could be wrong, since my father was also a formidable planner, but I’m pretty sure that my mom and I had the market cornered on worrying – and to the extent that worrying alone can prevent deficiencies, voila! In an attempt to avoid every possible deficiency, I of course nixed the idea of moving to France. Fortunately I am married to someone who does not recognize the importance of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina principle – so we moved here in spite of my grave warnings.

On Mom’s side of the family, we are German. I studied German in high school and back then could actually convey my thoughts, though a trip to Munich in the ’70s convinced me that there was a limit to my abilities. German was the logical language to study in our family. It’s a somewhat harsh sounding language, and though the German’s started World War II, still I loved the connection it gave me with the important non English roots of our ancestry.

Mom, on the other hand, studied French – I have no idea why. Here in Paris, I have her French books. Her address is dutifully recorded in the binding of each, 1115 W Nevada, Urbana, IL. I have her notes in the margins. The pictures, which represented some remote possibility in her lifetime, are of places that I have visited and readily recognize. Though I am no expert, in most cases I understand the French. It’s reassuring to me that I have brought the memory of her to a place where, despite the family’s logical connection to German, she sought to study. When we notified our relatives about our crazy idea of moving to France for a year, my mom was the first to cheer and encourage us, though she must have wondered whether she would live to the end of the experiment.

We don’t exactly know what constitutes a happy family, though perhaps it is a case where you can recognize an unhappy family when you see one. Our upbringing was not all wine and roses. My mom was the enforcer. If you follow hockey in the NHL you might have some idea of what that looks like. Certainly my recollections of childhood feature her as one who would enforce the part about “woe to that man by whom the offence cometh”. I think my brothers know that too. Still, mom was wonderful in her own way. We could bring her any modern idea that excited us, and she would become excited about it too. There was always that youthful exuberance without the fear that the standards of social etiquette would crumble.

We’ve scheduled the funeral, and I’m now planning an unexpected return to the US. Conveniently the timing works with everything else we were planning to do here. It’s funny how in spite of our family having spread all over the country (and now the world), the memory of our parents binds us together now more tightly than when we were younger. We were never the smartest kids, and we were always aware that many other families enjoyed a greater economic fortune than ours. Still, every day here I have a coat of my father’s to protect me and some French textbooks of my mother to remind me of the adventure yet to come. Were I to reconsider my life, I really wouldn’t want to have it any other way.

We finally get our Cartes de Séjour (residence permits)

Up all night celebrating our new cartes de sejour and Hugh's birthday

Up all night celebrating our new cartes de sejour and Hugh’s birthday

Since November we’ve been working to assemble the paperwork required to spend another year in France. The French name for the residence permit we need is carte de séjour. A week ago we had an the appointment at the Préfecture de Police to present our dossier and receive the permit. We documented in an earlier article how we started the process and got permission to stay in France until our official appointment. In that article we showed how we had assembled all of the details we would need to provide. From there it seemed like it would be simple enough to assemble the final documents and present them to the French authorities. Not so!  What might normally be straight forward became convoluted and difficult because we don’t speak or understand French very well.

In mid-March, about a month before our meeting at the Préfecture de Police, I contacted the service assisting us to prepare for the carte de séjour, Mon Ami Andy. We met with Jennifer Denison. Since all of our translations (birth certificates, marriage certificate, health insurance policy) were more than three months old, they had to be redone. The same with the documentation of all of our assets and account balances, sources of income, etc. With Jennifer’s help we planned the following activities to get ready for the meeting:

  • We resolved questions and completed the application forms for the carte de séjour
  • We resolved that Mon Ami Andy would update the translations
  • We would need to make new copies of of our passports and the visa pages and copies of our current récépissés (temporary visa extension document)
  • We would need to include copies of the health certification from our original visit to OFII (agency who cleared us for our visa when we arrived in France).
  • We would need to rewrite our letters promising not to engage in work while in France
  • We would need to collect three months of French and US bank statements and retirement pay statements. We would also provide the letter from our French bank stating we have an account in good standing.
  • We would need to collect the latest financial account statements
  • We would need to make a spreadsheet showing all sources of income and assets, both in France and the US.
  • We would assemble three piles of documents, one of originals and all details of all documents, including our latest tax return, one with copies about Brenda, and one with copies about me.
  • We would make color copies of all color documents, black and white copies of all black and white documents. Copies of financial statements only needed the page showing the account balance. We could look at the original if there was a question.
  • We were encouraged to use a highlighter on each document, highlighting the important information we wanted the administrator to understand.

In addition to this overarching plan, we thought we needed to change our address since we moved to a new apartment in early March. Our understanding was that we needed to update it within 8 days of moving. As soon as we had what we thought were the required documents (rental contract, utility bill showing both our names, receipt showing we had paid rent, and our current passports, visas and récépissés), we went to the Préfecture at Rue Truffaut, where we had gone before, to attempt the change. They sent us away, telling us they didn’t handle changes of address. We had a difficult time figuring out where to go after that. We were told that the police station at Rue Truffaut could do it, and that might have succeeded except that they told us we didn’t have all the required documents. We needed proof of insurance, which we didn’t have with us. They told us that we could do it at our local Préfecture in the 5th arrondissement, but a policeman there told us we couldn’t. We thought maybe we could do it at the downtown Préfecture, but then found out that was not the place. Then we were told we might be able to do it at the Mayor’s office in our arrondissement, but that wasn’t correct. Finally we discovered that what the policeman told us was wrong, and that we needed to go to the 5th arrondissement Préfecture. When we finally met with them, they said we didn’t need to change the address yet, and we should just do it at our carte de séjour appointment.

By now we were closing in on the end of March, so I started in earnest getting the packages of documents together. We don’t have a printer, so every time I needed to print something I had to walk 6 blocks down the street to “Copy Self”, a local printing and copying store in our neighborhood. The guys inside know me, even though I don’t pick up much of their French chatter. I think they talk “copy speak”, mostly consisting of terms of art about toner cartridges, document settings, color correction.

I carefully planned to print as many of the documents I needed as possible. I went to Copy Self and plugged my USB flash drive into their computer. For some reason I could not print my tax return at my usual printer. The office assistant came over to help me. First he printed my tax return to another printer in the back. It came out completely distorted and sized wrong for the paper. He then asked if I wanted to print all the documents at once, which I agreed to do since it seemed easiest. He moved my USB drive to another computer, selected all the documents, and hit print. My tax return document required that I type in my password. Only one hitch – I didn’t know of any password for that document. The assistant asked his boss for assistance. They exchanged copy speak – soon the boss took over. Every document required a password, but he did something to get them to print. Everything printed in portrait even though a good percentage of the documents are set up to print in landscape. It was printing disaster!

I took my 80 plus pages of financial documents home. That night I lay awake worried about identity theft. The next morning I assembled another package of summary financial pages and pages that needed to be printed in color, plus my tax return. I returned to Copy Self and kept things under control this time. By then my packages were coming together, but I was sick of getting ready for this meeting. All my time in France was being spent preparing to get a residence permit. I complained to our French tutor. I complained to Brenda. They tried to make helpful suggestions, but I was having none of it. I wanted this monkey off my back. I complained to my coach, who pulled me up short to ask how was I taking care of myself. We figured out that I needed a rest. Also I needed to recognize that others were making suggestions to try to help me because they could recognize better than me that I needed help. My real job at that point was to help myself.

A few days remained until our appointment. I agreed to take time off – we surfed the web at the Luxembourg Gardens and walked around town. I went to the gym and went to bed earlier at night. I resigned myself that if there was a problem, they would give me more time to fix it.

Our package was assembled. We had another meeting on Skype with Jennifer from Mon Ami Andy to go over everything. I highlighted the places in our documents where the income stream on my spread sheet showed up as deposits in the three months of US bank statements. I highlighted where transfers occurred from the US to France, and provided copies of the transfer documents themselves. I downloaded and printed the Tricare Overseas (retired military medical insurance) pages to show that we were enrolled and to show the list of recommended physicians and hospitals in France. I created an example of a bill from our doctor that I paid and for which I filed a claim and received reimbursement. I went over the checklist again and again, finding a few more mistakes and fixing them (and trudging back to Copy Self to print new copies). Brenda and I rehearsed how we would assemble our documents, how we would present them, and what we would say. On Sunday before our Monday appointment, we rested.

On Monday we went about 2 hours early to our official appointment at the main Préfecture office on Île de la Cité. We got through security and lined up outside of the room where we were to have our meeting. A man at the front door greeted us and quickly checked our paperwork, which he pronounced as “magnifique”. Then he gave us each a ticket and told us to sit down. In our room full of people, there really weren’t others like us. There were corporate employees with their families and a corporate attorney to shepherd them through the process, spouses one of whom is a French citizen and the other requiring to establish residence, students following the instructions from their schools, and others who spoke good French. People always ask us, why are you here, to which we shrug and say because we thought we would like it.

We were finally called to our meeting with a young woman, I would guess in her ’20s. She first went through Brenda’s paperwork and then through mine. She asked questions about our medical insurance, but after we demonstrated the process for reimbursement, she checked with her supervisor and accepted the plan. She was happy with everything else. Finally she wanted to know why Brenda’s last name was neither mine nor her maiden name. Brenda had been married in Australia in the ’70s. The woman asked for a copy of the divorce decree. I told her that I didn’t have it with me, but could get a copy at our apartment. She said she was going to lunch, and for us to get it and meet her back afterward with it.

We raced home and got our copy of the nearly 35 year old document, which I had attached to an original copy of our marriage license in an envelope of extra stuff I had brought first to San Francisco and then to France just in case. 25 years ago we sent to Australia for it so that we could obtain a military ID for Brenda when I was in the Navy. No one had ever asked about it since. We raced back to the Préfecture, entered back through security and waited for our inspector to return from lunch. When she finally returned I gave her the document, and she asked me for the translation. Checkmate – I told her I didn’t have a translation. She consulted her supervisor and bought back three documents for us to sign, two swearing that we were married and one for me to agree to accept whatever liability France might bear for our not having a good enough divorce decree [my interpretation]. Since I have already signed many software end user agreements, I readily signed what was put before me.

Our inspector printed new récépissés for us to verify and sign. We are once again legal residents in France. She also gave us each a Convocation (appointment slip) to pick up our real Cartes de Sejour on or after June 25th. The new permit is good through the end of January 2015. To renew that one, we need to start 5 months ahead of time, which would be next October.

In the aftermath I came down with a cold, which I’ve now passed on to Brenda. Still, we celebrated our new cartes de séjour and my birthday with our French friends Cat and Jacques, including a night of dancing. I just hit 21 for the third time (63), still trying to grow up.

A new apartment in Paris

Boulevard Saint-Germain when it was first created

We’ve moved just 3 blocks from our first apartment in a medieval building along the Seine to a new apartment in Paris built on Boulevard Saint-Germain during the Haussmannian era of the mid 1800s. From roughly 1850 to 1870 France was governed by Emperor Napoleon III, who as a main priority set about remodeling Paris to open up the view from the narrow, cramped medieval streets and to install sewer and water systems that would serve the city as it grew. To do so, he appointed an exceptionally strong public administrator, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, as Prefect of the Seine Department of France. Haussmann carried out a program to demolish crowded and unhealthy medieval neighborhoods, to annex suburbs surrounding Paris, to relocate many thousands of people from central Paris to the suburbs, to create a series of wide, straight avenues with parks and squares, to construct new sewers, fountains and aqueducts. He overcame tremendous opposition to do this, and in 1870 he was dismissed by Napoleon III to assuage pressure from his critics. The third phase of Haussmann’s plans was still unfinished, but work continued even after he was fired and was finally completed in 1927. In the end, hundreds of old buildings were razed, and more than 80 kilometers of new avenues were constructed.

Our new apartment building

The Paris you know today was the Paris created by Haussmann. The uniformity spelled out in Haussmann’s building codes created a look that is distinctly Parisian, but if you’ve seen one Haussmann apartment, you’ve seen them all. There is still a certain sentiment for the old medieval streets and wood beamed buildings.

We moved for several reasons, but our new place has both pluses and minuses compared to the old one. We looked at apartments all over Paris, but in the end opted for another apartment in the 5th arrondissement simply because we like that neighborhood the best. The basic improvements we sought were a quieter location with more space for guests and a kitchen with an oven. The new apartment is about 50% larger and has a much better arrangement for guests. It has high ceilings and appears much more spacious. Also the fixtures and appliances are better quality. It looks on a courtyard rather than out into a noisy street. On the negative side, the new apartment was quite dirty, and we spent many unanticipated hours cleaning. We were able to negotiate a rent credit for some of the time we spent. The new apartment was not nearly as well furnished as our first, so we’ve spent considerable time and money buying missing pieces. The old apartment had double paned windows, while the new one has the original single panes – you can see the glass flowing. Brenda misses the view of Notre Dame and the light and bright feel of the old place, as well as the large luxurious marble bath with double sinks. Hugh loves it that the new place is quiet at night.

Our medieval street, Rue de Bievre. The French President François Mitterand had lived halfway down the block.

The medieval street, Rue de Bievre, at the old apartment shows how Paris was before Haussmann.

It was the first time we had to arrange for gas and electricity, since utilities and Internet had been handled by the landlord in the first apartment. We were able to call the Frech utility EDF and make our arrangements in English, which really helped since we had to estimate our usage of gas and electricity to properly size the capacity that would be allocated to us. We pay a flat rate that can be adjusted based on meter readings each quarter. The start up of our service went very smoothly. While at the old apartment the heat was electric, here we have gas heat (radiators) and hot water. The old apartment had two electric meters, one with a lower rate from 11pm to 7 am, the other with a higher rate during the daytime. Here we have only one electric meter and one gas meter, the assumption being that since we use the cheaper gas for heat and hot water, we don’t need the same incentives to save power. Gas in Europe generally costs 2-3 times as much as we pay in the US. We have become much better conservers of energy.

It was also the first time for us to sign up for Internet service. Since we already had two mobile phone accounts with Orange, a provider of both mobile and residential communications services, we shopped with them first. For and additional 25 Euros per month, we arranged bundled services that include, in addition to our two cell phones, fiberoptic internet and HD TV with extra on demand movies and TV (all in French of course), unlimited calling to US land lines, plus a mobile hot spot for up to 4 devices that has unlimited data usage. Telecoms are competing in Europe! Our total bill for two cell phones and all our residential communications needs is about 75 Euros per month, far less than we pay in the US.

Installation was not easy. Hugh made an appointment to meet the installer, but when he contacted our building concierge about getting access to the basement for part of the work, she refused him and told him it would have to be after 6 pm because she had other plans for that day. Hugh went and requested that the appointment be cancelled, but the installer showed up anyway. It took over 6 hours to figure out the best way to pull fiberoptic cable from the connection point outside our apartment into the place were the “set top box” was to be located. The installer was quite ingenious and revealed many secrets about how these buildings from the 1800’s can meet the needs of today.

Shortly before 6 pm we again contacted the concierge, who argued with the installer for about half an hour about why we should need to upgrade service, also noting that she had not agreed to assist prior to 6 pm even though she was now there talking to us. She called down some of our neighbors, who testified on our behalf that what we were requesting was necessary. We remained quiet throughout the process and let the installers and the neighbors settle the issue. Finally the concierge relented and our installer was able to complete work in about 5 minutes.

Living room and dining rooms – picture on left was my Valentine’s present

We had to change our address with the mail service so that mail sent to the old address would be forwarded. In France it costs 35 Euros for the service to forward mail for 6 months. Unfortunately, there was a parcel had been sent though the mail that could not be forwarded. Brenda purchased a French print for Hugh to be delivered on Valentine’s Day. It was being sent by mail through La Poste. Unfortunately, the company promising delivery notified us that there was a delay. Perhaps a week later they sent email to us that the print had shipped and included the tracking number for the package. Hugh tracked the package but noted that it remained at an unidentified location at La Poste (somewhere in Paris) for more than a week. We contacted the company that shipped the print and also visited our local post office, who could not help us with locating the parcel. Finally we received email from La Poste that they would be contacting us for delivery. Unfortunately by then we had moved. After the mandatory 2 tries to deliver (we think you need to be standing by your mail box when they show up because they made no attempt to contact us), we received notice that we could pick up the parcel at the post office. We went there the next day with our notice. The postal clerk asked us for identification. He would not accept any ID except an original passport (not drivers license or copy of passport). Hugh had to go back and get the passports before we received our package.

When we opened it we discovered it was damaged – a small dent in the tube caused a crease the length of the print. Eventually we were able to return the print to the company that shipped it and receive a new one. We were able to purchase a frame and hang it a month or so after Valentine’s Day. Voila! All’s well that ends well.

The new apartment remains a work in progress. Here are some photos comparing old and new and showing what it’s like in the new place. It has been a pleasant surprise to discover that there is a world of new shops and activities right in the same area where we’ve been living the past year.

Notary Service at the US Embassy Paris

US Embassy Paris - visitors lined up near the small tent on the left and entered via the guard house to the right of the tent

US Embassy Paris – visitors lined up near the small tent on the left and entered via the guard house to the right of the tent

I recently had to use the Notary Service at the US Embassy Paris. My strategy to transfer funds from our US bank to our account in France has been to use a 3rd party company, Venstar Exchange, to provide a better exchange rate than we  could get through the bank. A US bank might charge 3% above the spot exchange rate (plus a wire fee) to transfer funds. A 3% premium is also what you might pay for Euro purchases with your US credit card. On fairly large transfers, such as $25,000, the difference in the quoted exchange rate (Venstar charges a little over 1% above the spot rate quoted at 10 minute intervals) can amount to a significant amount of money. Previously I had been able to initiate wire transfers by sending wiring instructions to our US bank using secure email on their web site.

Recently I sent a funds transfer request to our US bank, and they told me that their procedures had changed. I would need to complete and have notarized a new form with two parts, one authorizing the Venstar account where we send the funds (which they convert to Euros and forward to our French account), and a second part that specifies how to handle recurring transfers so I could complete future transfers with just a phone call verification of my identity. Where do you get a US Notary in France? You have to go to the US Embassy.

We’d been by the American Embassy before. It’s on 2 Avenue Gabriel, just off Place de la Concorde and close by the Elysée Palace where the President of France lives. One day after hiking the Champs-Élysées we were passing by, and I tried to take a photo from the sidewalk outside the security fence. I was immediately whistled down (you know you’re in trouble when guys start to whistle at you) and informed that photos were not permitted.

To see a notary, I made an appointment on the Embassy web site – they had one available in 5 days. The consulate sent me a couple emails asking me to confirm the appointment and assuring me that correct completion of the form was up to me and that they could not in any way help me interpret my paperwork. Fair enough. I sent the bank a list of questions and then used their answers to make sure that I correctly filled out their form, which was an internal bank form not really set up for use by a notary. Their answers also provided instructions about how Embassy was to notarize the form.

Armed with my passport, my appointment form, and all my other paperwork, I set out for my appointment at the Embassy. The weather was cold – windy and in the mid ’30s (yes I know that would be a heat wave in Minnesota). The guard outside checked me off on his schedule and directed me to go stand in line outside the security building behind about 20 other people. We all stood there for about 15 minutes until they began to invite people one at a time into the secure guard building nearby for a security check. Eventually I got to go inside, where they used procedures similar to what you experience at the airport to clear me for entry. After the security check, they took away my cell phone and keys and directed me outside, across a courtyard and into the visitors area in the Embassy itself.

While I was waiting in line, I could see Embassy employees coming and going through a different entrance, but the area where visitors were sent was completely isolated from all embassy staff. Visitors can interact with staff to address their needs through 15 bullet proof glass windows with pass through slots. Perhaps a hundred visitors were waiting in the large seating area. I took a number and followed the instructions they gave me to sit and wait for my turn.

When my number was flashed on the monitor, I went to the designated counter and described what I needed to the woman behind the bullet proof glass. She took my form and passport, issued me a bill for $100, and sent me over to the cashier to pay. The employee taking my credit card laughed when I remarked that the service was “très cher”. Then I went back to wait some more. I was called back to sign the document and swear that the information I was providing was true and accurate, and I was done – it only took a minute.

I left the visitors area and returned to the guard building to recover my keys and phone. Then I exited the security perimeter and headed for freedom, reflecting on how the politics of our world has so restricted many aspects of our lives. I guess we really wouldn’t want it any other way, but what should be a “friendly home” to Americans in France has been transformed into a foreboding and unwelcoming space. I made my way into Place de la Concorde, looked back, and furtively took a photo.

Getting a Carte de Séjour (Residence Permit)

From the back of the line at the Prefecture de Police

From the back of the line at the Prefecture de Police

Before I relate our process of obtaining a residence permit, a note of caution: Information we found on other Internet blogs was not always reliable and up to date. You will need to do your own research. The requirements change often. There have been major changes to the Préfecture de Police Web site even since we began our process. This post should in no way be interpreted as legal advice.

Last week we finally received from the Préfecture de Police permission to remain in France until April. The Préfecture is the agency that implements French government policies for non-citizens visiting or working in France for periods beyond one year. When we return to the Préfecture in April, they will review all of the documents and hopefully issue a resident card allowing us to remain an additional year in France.

In late October, about 3 months before the expiration of our visa, I checked the web site for the Préfecture de Police. How I wish I had checked this earlier! Right away I knew we were in trouble; the first requirement for visitors was to visit the Préfecture 4 to 5 months prior to expiration of their visa.

I relied on the information from our visa issued by the French Office of Immigration and Integration (OFII). We’ve already related the story of our visit to OFII. This visa gave us a resident permit for our first year in France. The application contained the following information about renewing our residence permit:

“If you wish to renew your residence permit you must, within the last two months before your visa expires, go to the relevant local authorities of your place of residence (“Préfecture”) and apply for a resident permit. You will be given the necessary forms and the list of requirements, which can vary according to your stay. Failing to do so will result in your having to return to your last country of residency to request a new visa.”

The Préfecture Web site provided a list of items that applicants need to present for their first renewal. It included some items not required by OFII, such as certified copies of birth certificates with date of issue within the past 3 months. Other items were similar to what we had presented for our original visa. About the same time, I found an article on the blog Paris Missives letting us know that obtaining a residence permit was no walk in the park. There was a form on the Préfecture Web site to request an appointment to renew the residence permit, but I could not figure out what number on my long term visa would allow me to sign up. The numbers in the online form appeared to correspond only to numbers on the residence permit card.

Knowing we were running out of time and still not having an official appointment, on November 1st Brenda and I went to the Préfecture de Police on Rue Truffaut, the designated place for people living in our part of Paris. We took with us everything on the checklist that we could pull together, and I hastily ordered our birth certificates by overnight mail from the US.

This first visit was a complete failure. We arrived early in the afternoon and found two long lines. We understood the line on the right was for first time renewals, and the line on the left was for people who were renewing a subsequent time. We waited outside, standing in a crowd in sub 40 degree weather for 5 hours. The line on the left moved quickly along, but our line moved hardly at all. Just as we neared the front, an administrator appeared and told everyone to go home. No more appointments that day. At least 100 angry people, trying to get the feeling back in their legs, trudged off.

Later we found out that traffic that day was especially heavy because people who normally would have been at work were off for some school holidays. The next week we received our birth certificates. Still hoping to get in the door to start the approval process, we went back to the Préfecture at 8:30 am on November 6th. This time we got inside, received a number, and within 2 hours were called to the front desk. The administrator spoke rapidly in French (too rapidly for us to understand what she said) as she looked at our paperwork. She handed our paperwork back, told us to leave and to call the phone number on the checklist to make an appointment. Since appointments were running about 5 months out (April 2014), and our visas were to expire in January, we did not understand why the Préfecture would not see us. We returned home to look for some bourbon and professional help.

We searched the Internet and found a company in Nice called “Mon Ami Andy”. They help clients obtain residence permits. I filled out their online form. Within a day I received a response from Jennifer Denison, who specializes in helping with visa/immigration issues. She answered my list of questions regarding our circumstances and explained how to obtain items required by the checklist. Her being in the south of France was not a problem. She met with us in our Paris apartment when she was in town early in December. Below are some requirements and answers for questions:

Is this our first renewal?

Our visa authorized residence for our first year in France. We were confused about whether we were now applying for our first residence permit or a renewal because the laws changed 2 years ago. Before the change one would apply for a separate residence permit at the Préfecture within 3 months of being in France. Now the first year of residence in France is authorized by the visa approval by OFII. Older websites discussing residence permits were not up to date with this change. With current rules, because one holds only a visa and not a separate residence card, one is classified as making his/her first request to the Préfecture.

Getting an appointment at the Préfecture

I hired “Mon Ami Andy” to obtain the appointment for us. For nearly a week they had no success contacting the Préfecture. Finally on a Monday they succeeded. Since July 2013 the Préfecture has a cap on how many appointments they can give out per week, making it easier to manage the workload for their employees. The previous week all of the spaces had been filled by 10 am on Tuesday, so for the rest of the week the switchboard was off! The Préfecture confirmed the appointment by sending us a “convocation” inviting us to individual appointments on April 14th. Since our visas expire near the end of January, we still had to have temporary permission to remain in France. Back to the Préfecture!

Get first Recepissé

With our letters of convocation, passports and a proof of address (a bill in each of our names), we went to the commissariat 19 rue Truffeau at 8:30 am to request a Recepissé. This time we got to stand in the faster moving line on the left. As a precaution recommended by “Mon Ami Andy”, we took additional paperwork – apartment lease and receipts, bank statements, and translated birth certificates and marriage license, but these were not required. As Jennifer predicted, we were issued the Recepissé without any problems. It allows us to stay in France legally until our meeting in April. We are also permitted to enter and exit France freely.

Note on what documents were needed to prove residence

Our landlord kept the utilities in her name so we did not have a utility bill to prove we live at our address in Paris. “Mon Ami Andy” recommended that we use a cell phone bill in each of our names, copy of the apartment lease with the most recent 3 months of rent receipts, and bank statements in both our names as a backup. Both our cell phone accounts were in my name. It took us more than a month to complete the paperwork so that our cell provider Orange could change one of the accounts into Brenda’s name. An Orange phone cannot list more than one person on the account.

Now we are looking forward to our meeting in April. We have given notice to our current landlord with the hope of finding a larger apartment in a quieter location. Below are additional details for our April meeting:

Marriage certificate

The checklist didn’t say we needed a copy of our marriage certificate, but we were advised that one is needed, the requirement being lumped in with “etat civil” documents. As with our birth certificates, this document must be translated into French by an authorized translator. “Mon Ami Andy” provides authorized translation services. All translations in France need to be dated less than three months from the day of the appointment.

Proof of Health insurance

Our health insurance policy letter showing coverage while we are in France must be translated into French. Another option would be to sign up for French coverage. We’ve been advised that we can do this without being members of the French social security system. Generally the cost of this coverage is not based on history/need/preexisting conditions, but simply on age. A person aged 40-50 is about 90 euros per month, 50+ about 100 euros. The Préfecture loves it if you have French coverage. It is easy for them to understand and determine approval. Since we already have US insurance with coverage in Europe, our current goal is to find a way to convince the French that our coverage meets their requirements.

Documents to show OFII health check

We have to provide the original (from April 2013) OFII health exam and chest X-rays. The Préfecture only needs to see the certificate signed/stamped by the doctor saying that we passed the medical.

Justification of resources

As visitors, we must justify our resources as sufficient for the time of our stay in France. We must provide our last 3 months bank statements from our French bank and an “attestation de compte”, which is a letter from our bank that says that we have a bank account in good standing. It is a good rule of thumb that whatever was used to justify assets for the original visa at the French consulate in America should be used again – now with the addition of any French bank assets and the bank letter. A summary of our US assets will need to be translated into French and converted into Euros.

Letter not to engage in work or services

“Mon Ami Andy” provided us with an example of a letter with appropriate French language to formally declare that we would not engage in work. This is a requirement only for visitors.

Proof of payment to OFII

The Préfecture checklist requires proof of payment to OFII for the original receipt of their approval stamp. The OFII stamp in one’s passport is proof that the taxes owed were paid.

Other considerations for success

We’ve been advised that, despite the appearance of a difficult bureaucracy, as long as all the ducks are in a row, paperwork translated, photocopies, not bound by staples, etc, Carte de Séjour (residence permit) requests very rarely get refused. Most of the decision process is based on whether or not you can afford to support yourself in France without needing French social assistance. We were able to justify this to the French Consulate in the US, and they are generally far more difficult to please than the Préfecture! At the Préfecture they like to see the documents the way that they like to see them, eg specific photocopies, specific order etc. It is worth the effort to ask for assistance in getting prepared.

Rendez-vous time

Our appointments at the Préfecture are scheduled for April 14th. This is long after our current visas expire. Unfortunately these are the earliest available appointments. The procedure is as follows: Documents for all the items on the Préfecture checklist need to be updated to within 3 months of the appointment. Only translation dates of translated documents need to be updated. Documents must be organized by originals and then copies- color documents with color copies, black and white documents with black and white copies.

Renewal date for new residence permit

Our new residence permit will expire at the end of January, 2015, a year after the original expiration of our visas. An updated Recepissé will be issued after the meeting, and a couple months later the actual residence card arrives. By that time we will need to start application to renew our residence permit for year 3!

Can we renew our lease or rent a new apartment prior to approval of the residence permit?

The Recepissé is a legal document issued by the Préfecture, which means that we are authorized to stay and reside. For all intents and purposes it has the same authority as the Carte de Séjour. We are fully legal in France until the 14th of April. Also, if for whatever reason we are not approved for the Carte de Séjour in April, we would only have to give one month’s notice to our landlord in order to terminate the contract. The lease at our current place could roll over automatically whether or not we have a valid Carte de Séjour, and our recipissé status should be no problem for any new individual owner or real estate agency. If requested, we may have to show our Carte de Séjour (residence permit) in April once we have received it. At our appointment, the Préfecture only needs to see a current rental contract; they will assume it will simply roll over upon approval of our residence permit.

How to give written notice

In France to terminate a lease you have to give written notice via the mail, to be sent with signed delivery upon receipt. The post office can help with this. Using the postal system web site, I was able to mail my signed termination and pay for the postage online and skip the trip to the post office.

Christmas in Paris

Christmas Tree at Notre Dame Cathedral

Christmas Tree at Notre Dame Cathedral

The year is winding down – it’s Christmas time in Paris. We’ve just returned from a couple weeks in the US. I visited my mom and brothers in Illinois, and Brenda visited her mom in Spokane. My brother Chris organized an early Christmas dinner at his house in Pekin, Illinois – we even had some snow. Then we looked at more Christmas lights than most towns have – many many lights. Back in Poulsbo we visited as many friends as we could fit into a weekend and saw lots of Christmas decorations. We also saw the dentist. Now we’re back in Paris and it feels like home.

Perhaps you want to know what Christmas in Paris is like. Our apartment looks pretty Spartan. We have a 6 inch paper Christmas tree with LED lights that flicker like candles and some snow flakes pasted to the window panes. There’s a light strip in the corner that we can turn different colors, and perhaps we can light a bunch of candles to create more atmosphere. I personally don’t know about any presents – maybe some will turn up. Though our apartment decorations may not sound festive, we’ve been doing most of our celebrating outside of our home.

Christmas dinner at La Cuisine

Christmas dinner at La Cuisine

The day after our return from the US, we went to a cooking class to learn to prepare some traditional French Christmas fare – Carpaccio de Saint-Jacques à l’Huile de Truffe, Caille farcie au Foie Gras with Sauce au Porto, Purée de Panais et Poêlée de Champignons Sauvages, and Mousse Chocolat Blanc et Citron Vert with Mangue Rôti and Biscuit Cacao. So that’s sliced scallops, a deboned quail stuffed with foie gras and port reduction sauce, a mixture of wild mushrooms in a sauce and a parsnip puree, and dessert of white chocolate mousse served in a chocolate biscuit with roasted mango. After dinner was prepared, we got to eat it, and was it good! Every event we’ve been to a La Cuisine has been a hit – we always look forward to it.

Buche de Noel cake, a traditional chocolate roll cake for Christmas

Buche de Noel cake, a traditional chocolate roll cake for Christmas

Brenda went back the following day to learn how to make Bûche de Noël, a traditional French chocolate roll cake. The cake included meringue mushrooms as decoration, chocolate génoise for rolling, cherry syrup for soaking, chocolate cream for filling, and chocolate ganache for frosting. She brought her completed cake home, and we just finished eating it. Yum!

Tomorrow we have an invitation to celebrate Christmas Eve with the family of our good friend Catherine, who lives outside the city in Nogent Sur-Marne. She already let us know that we would need to take a cab home early Christmas morning. We are excited to be able to celebrate with her, her husband Jacques, and their family in this normally family only dinner and party.

Paris is a city of neighborhoods, so there isn’t a single downtown area with a mass concentration of decorations. Instead there are many areas with a few streets of decoration clumped together. We’ve put together a photo slide show of some of the decorations we’ve seen over the past month or so.

That’s our Christmas for this year. We hope that wherever you are, you have a happy and wonderful holiday. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Hugh Nelson and Brenda Prowse

See our slide show of Paris Christmas Decorations.

Thanksgiving in Paris

Canard we prepared at La Cuisine

Canard we prepared at La Cuisine

What do the Parisians do on Thanksgiving? Actually this very American holiday hasn’t caught on. There’s a shop called Thanksgiving in the Marais that serves American expatriate needs by providing turkey, cranberries, stuffing, and pies, as well as other American ingredients that are just plain missing in France – things like measuring spoons and brown sugar. This morning Brenda prepared a little speech in French to explain Thanksgiving to the dairy products vendor at our local market-now he knows! Word is spreading.

Here's our dry run cooking the canard at home (earlier this week)

Here’s our dry run cooking the canard at home (earlier this week)

For us, well we aren’t having Turkey this year, though dinde (turkey) is sold at the market. We don’t have an oven so we have to find something different that fits the occasion. On Halloween we went to a cooking school, La Cuisine, and found that the main course from that menu, Magret de Canard with Sauce au Vin, is easily prepared in our little kitchen (even though we have to open the windows and ventilate the apartment during preparation). Along with the main dish, we’re having Chanterelle Mushrooms with Herbs and Pine Nuts, Butternut Squash Gratin with Crème Fresh, Nutmeg, and Compté Cheese, Cranberry Sauce with Red Wine and Figs (Thank you David Lebovitz for the recipe !) Pour les dessert, we’re having a raspberry tort framboise. Our wine is a 2010 Hecht and Bannier Syrah from Minervois, where we were earlier this year with friends from Poulsbo on the Canal du Midi.

For me, I’m thankful to be here and that Brenda is doing the cooking. Happy Thanksgiving from Brenda and Hugh!

Paris Plages!

Part Paris Plages on the roadway beside the Seine.

Part of Paris Plages runs along the roadway beside the Seine.

Since July 20th the City of Paris has transformed the Seine and the front of Hotel de Ville (city hall) into Paris-Plages (Paris beaches). Truckloads of sand were brought in to form beaches along portions of the Seine. Roads along the river, normally heavily trafficked, are closed as part of the event. There is beach volleyball in front of City Hall. There are beach chairs, misters to help you cool off, a floating swimming pool, areas for dancing, snack and beverage stands, even an air conditioned trailer for the first aid people to hang out. A couple prohibitions – no topless bathing and no swimming in the Seine. The event is funded by local sponsors, but sponsorship signage is unobtrusive (and I don’t know who sponsored the event – how effective is that?).

Paris-Plages was started in 2002 by Bertrand Delanoë, the Mayor of Paris. At first it was criticized for being a costly waste, but the populace has since warmed up to it, and the beaches are now packed every day. Many citizens of Paris leave town for vacation in August because the city is often hot and humid and the town center is packed with tourists. Paris-Plages was a way to provide something for those who are left behind.

The Mayor has goals improve the quality of life, reduce pollution, and cut down on vehicle traffic within the city and pedestrian malls. Paris-Plages is just one effort to achieve these goals. We’ve seen the front square of Hotel de Ville transformed continually this year. First it was an ice rink, then a garden area, then a tennis court with big screen TV for the French Open, then a rock concert stage, now a beach volleyball court. Another popular program has been Vélib’ (combination of the French “vélo” and “libre” meaning “free bicycles”) which gives Parisians access to inexpensive rental bicycles available in stations all around Paris. Our Paris friends keep urging us to try these – we’ll have to report back.

See more photos of Paris-Plages.

Visitors!

We have had quite a few visitors lately. The best part for me and Hugh is that each guest has interests that lead to new explorations and adventures for us. A recent guest whose first ever visit to Paris had a few things on his agenda: visit Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Rodin museum, the Musée d’Orsay, a boat ride under the bridges of the Seine, a visit to the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, dining at the Grand Colbert (the restaurant made famous by the Diane Keaton-Jack Nicholson movie “Something’s Gotta Give”), a cooking class at La Cuisine cooking school, and a modern Architectural walking tour.

Even though our apartment is right next to the Seine, and we walk along it and cross the many bridges with regularity, we had not previously taken a boat ride. We found the hour long trip most enjoyable and now plan to take one at night too. Seeing the historical buildings lining the Seine from the boat perspective was exciting and so much easier than walking! There is a boarding point within a block of our apartment too-how great is that!

The visit to the Rodin museum was a first for us too. The gardens and outdoor and indoor sculptures were awe inspiring. I had not known that “The Thinker” would be mounted high on a pedestal nor that it was so large. Our friend was moved to tears by the sculpture of “The Kiss” which was truly beautiful. The day we visited, a wedding event was being staged in the gardens. We wished we could be guests for that enchanting event.

I organized a special private Louvre Tour through an excellent tour company, Paris Walks. Even though Hugh and I had a previous Louvre Tour, this one was even better. Our guide was passionate about art history and because we were so interested and she was having such a wonderful time our tour was extended almost an hour. Having a guide for the Louvre in my opinion is a must- it is just too overwhelming to do on your own. With a guide you can skip the waiting lines, go directly to the best areas and get an extensive history lesson.

Musée d’Orsay is a magical place. Just being inside the bulding and seeing the light stream through the high celings gives me a euphoric feeling. Then there is the artwork-Monet, Van Gogh, Gaugin just a few favorites, the art nouveau furniture, the sculptures, the dining area. I am so happy visitors want to experience this museum.

Cooking class is a blast! La Cuisine is a wonderful small cooking school only about half a mile north of our apartment. It offers a myriad of classes from cutting up a whole chicken and using all the parts to create a divine dinner (french onion soup with broth from the carcass, ailles de poulets from the wings, paupiettes de volaille-pounded flattened chicken breasts stuffed with herbes and mushrooms,) to making the perfect french baugette, or shopping at the local market for the best ingredients to make a sumptuous lunch. Our recent guest put the baugette making class high up on the enjoyment list.

Another new discovery for me and Hugh was made on the Modern Architecture Walk sponsored by Paris Walks. The Arab World Institute, which is less than half a mile east of our apartment, has a world class view of Paris from atop the sun terrace, and it is a free elevator ride to the top. While climbing to the top of Notre Dame can’t be beat, the Arab Institue elevator is a wonderful device ensuring that less nimble guests can view Paris from above. The walking tour also led us past the ebullient Frank Gehry cinematique, the controversial National Library which is designed like four open books, the brand new Cité de la Mode (les Docks) and the stunning Simone de Beauvoir footbridge.

Another dear friend arrived in Paris today. We will have many different experiences as she loves gardens!

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