Technical Difficulties in Paris in 2020

Hugh and Brenda at the flower market on Ile de la Cité
Hugh and Brenda at the flower market on Ile de la Cité

Remember when the TV would occasionally show a screen saying that they were having technical difficulties? We had a few technical difficulties in Paris in 2020.

Looking back, I have plenty of things to be thankful for. I’m not among those who suffered because of health problems or financial loss. The regulatory regime was a grind, but I found interesting things to do. Brenda and I had six months of family separation while she was with her mother in Washington, but we communicated every day, and I kept busy helping her organize life there. I still had enough of a social life through attending Poulsbo (Washington) Rotary weekly meetings via Zoom, six virtual wine tasting events via Microsoft Teams, and, when we weren’t locked down during the summer, weekend get-togethers with our friends Cathy and Jacques here in Paris.

I think that beyond economic and medical effects, Covid-19 influenced many other aspects of people’s lives. Last fall I had skin cancer surgery, which required 17 medical appointments and considerable effort to submit the medical bills for reimbursement in the United States. Also I was preparing for our annual visit to the Préfecture de Police on December 22nd to renew our French residence cards, a complicated process that takes several months to organize. On top of these obligations and the effects of lockdown on the general routine, a few other problems came up, as described below:

Renewing Brenda’s Military ID Card

In July we realized that we needed to renew Brenda’s military dependent’s ID card. The card was to expire at the end of July. Normally I as her sponsor (since I am retired from the military) must go with her to an appointment at a military base to attest to her being my wife. There is no US military facility in Paris. The last time we traveled to Germany and renewed it at an Army base in Wiesbaden. However, this year I was in France, and she was in Washington State. The DOD ID card office has an Internet feature to allow the sponsor to authorize the dependent’s card renewal remotely so that the dependent can renew their ID by themselves. This is a system with millions of users.

The last week in July, I logged into the site and reviewed all the information, then clicked on the button to renew the ID card. Despite submitting my authorization using the same credentials that I had already used successfully to gain access to the web site, I could not authorize her replacement ID card.

After going to the online help desk, I learned that I could only succeed by using Internet Explorer. As a Mac user, there is no Internet Explorer. Even 5 years ago, Internet Explorer was only used by perhaps 15% of all Internet users. Nevertheless, I reformatted my hard drive and installed Windows 10 and Internet Explorer, plus other specific tools (Javascript and card reader software that I had to purchase) that they said were required to access the site.

It still didn’t work. I called the help desk, waiting on hold for 45 minutes to learn that yes, their site was broken. A system outage had occurred about a week prior, but they said they were working diligently to repair it, so I should just keep checking back. The help desk person assured me that it wouldn’t be a problem since ID cards were now being extended to September 30.

Nowhere on the web site did it say that remote ID card renewal wasn’t working. In fact, while waiting on hold, the message kept repeating that unless you had Internet Explorer, the card reader software, and the correct version of Java you need not ask them for any help.

For the next month I checked back every couple days to see whether they had fixed their Web site, then on August 31st I called again (waiting again on hold for 45 minutes). The site was still broken. There was no estimate for when it would be repaired.

So I downloaded the form, filled it out, and made an appointment on September 4th at the US Embassy (the only place in France where there is a US notary public) to sign the form. After I signed in front of the Notary, I mailed my form to Brenda in the US. It arrived in Spokane in mid-September, still in time for the September 30th expiration.

On September 17th Brenda went to Fairchild AFB near Spokane to renew her ID card, but their card making machine was broken, so bad luck. In the meantime, DOD had now extended the expiration date for cards due to expire until April 2021.

Finally, on October 27th, Brenda was able return to Fairchild with her form and get her ID card renewed. Problem solved!

Obtaining Proof of American Health Insurance

We need to provide proof of our health insurance to renew our French residence permits each year. We have done this the past 6 years – a letter of coverage can be downloaded from my account at DOD benefits web site with the click of a button. In preparation for our annual renewal appointment at the Paris Préfecture de Police, I logged into my military benefits web site account on October 19th and tried to download the proof of coverage letter. It didn’t work. The site’s error message said, “There has been an error. Please check back later”. Once again, there are millions of users covered by this insurance.

I checked back with the same results for a couple days, then called them on October 21st, waiting on hold for 45 minutes. They said that I was the first to report a problem with the system, but that they could fax or mail me the letter. I said I don’t have a fax so please mail to my US postal address. They promised to do so.

On November 2nd I had not received a copy of the letter, so I created an online fax account and called them back. I told them that nothing had been received, and that I was running out of time. They said that they had just received word that there was a problem with downloading the letter. I asked if they could please fax the letter to me, which they agreed to do promptly.

I waited another week, not having received either letter or fax (and the web site didn’t work yet either). I called again and said I really need this letter – please fax to me. A supervisor promised to do so.

A day later I received two partial faxes, only the cover sheet but not the letter I needed. I tested my own fax system from another number and it worked perfectly. I called them back and said that I still didn’t have my fax – please send again.

Within an hour I had my faxed copy, which I sent to the service in France that translates my US documents into French for our appointment. You have to use an official translator for this service. My advisor said she was worried about the letter because It wasn’t signed, and I said it was the best I could do.

On a hunch I checked the web site again. For the first time in 6 weeks, it worked. I downloaded my official-looking letter in one click and sent it to the translator, who thought it was perfect.

Voilà, another problem solved!

Filing French Taxes

Each year we must file income tax both in the US and in France. To do this we hire an accountant licensed in both countries. There is a complicated tax treaty to prevent double taxation of citizens of one country living or working in the other country. In our case, retired with income only from pensions and investments in the US, we don’t owe tax in France, though all of our income must be declared. In France you declare your income from all the sources (using several forms totalling about 25 pages of French legalize) and send this Declaration of Revenue to the tax authorities. In turn they review it and send back a calculation showing how much tax you owe. The past three years we owed zero, as expected. This year (with no change in our sources of income or the treaty) their letter said we owed 692€.

Our accountant said they had miscalculated and furnished a letter that we could use to submit to them. She said that about half her American clients had received French tax bills with errors this year. According to the specific section of the tax treaty, they should be giving us a credit in the amount of the tax owed in France for each of our income streams. Thus we should not owe any tax in France (which is not to say that we didn’t owe tax in the US).

I sent the letter via registered mail on August 31st and a few days later got back the return receipt. On September 28th, with no reply yet from French tax authorities, I received a letter from them saying that since I hadn’t entered my bank account information to allow withdrawal of the tax, they were going to charge an extra 10%. After spending a long time studying the US-French tax treaty in English and in French, on October 2nd I walked in the rain over to our local Centre des Finances Publiques near l’Eglise Saint Sulpice.

Since we were locked down, I waited in line outdoors in the rain (with my umbrella) for about two hours before getting to the head of the line. There was a continuous stream of elderly people, usually with crutches, who arrived and went ahead of those who were waiting. The Centre passed out umbrellas to people in line who had forgotten theirs, but there weren’t enough. One man showed up and insisted that they take him right away since he didn’t have an umbrella and it was raining. Fortunately the gatekeeper didn’t fall for that one.

Eventually I was ushered inside to talk to a man standing behind a large plexiglass wall. I showed him my bill and a copy of the letter I had sent. He asked me for my declaration, so I showed him a copy of that. He told me that the tax treaty was very complicated and that I would need an appointment, but that no appointments were available. He took a copy of my letter and sent me on my way, saying that they would contact me.

When I got home I looked through the my past tax information to figure out the how to log into my account in the French tax system. Since we had never had to pay, I had never done this before. Once I got online, I discovered that two days before I went to the tax center, the government had amended my tax bill so that I only owed 295 euros. After studying the tax treaty more and consulting further with my accountant, on October 18th I sent them a secure message citing the same information from my first letter and asking them to recalculate the tax owed. On November 4th I received a letter from the French government telling me how to pay my 295 euros.

On November 27th I received another correction notice from the French tax authorities, correcting my tax owed to zero. Another problem solved!

Getting Brenda’s Covid Test to Return to France

Finally I’ll add a similar problem Brenda faced in returning to France in late November.

From August 1st, travelers to France aged 11 or older from the United States had to provide before boarding the results of a COVID test taken less than 72 hours before departure indicating a negative result for COVID-19. You also needed a valid reason to travel, in our case being that we have a residence permit and a domicile in Paris.

Brenda was leaving on November 20th, a Friday, from Spokane, flying to Minneapolis, and then Atlanta before departing from there to Paris. It is no longer possible to fly direct to Paris from Seattle, so this is how her previous Seattle flight had been rerouted. We hoped that getting a test 72 hours before leaving Spokane was going to be satisfactory. To meet the timeline she needed to have the test taken on Tuesday, November 17th, and receive the result before the flight departed at 6:30 am on Friday.

The problem was that in Spokane there was no facility providing rapid tests except for doctor-ordered tests for suspected Covid-19 exposures. Most clinics promised results between 1 and 5 days after testing. No amount of begging helped. There were no special provisions to meet tight time requirements for flying to France. Brenda had her test at a local clinic on Tuesday morning, then waited until 3:30am on Friday, when, with no results yet, we decided to cancel her flight and replan. That test cost $100. She received the results on the 4th day.

The only way to get the test result in time to fly was to go to Seattle (so it would be possible to return home if the test was positive), stay in a hotel, and use a testing service that provided overnight results for $250. She had to stay 2 days in the hotel because you couldn’t be certain that a test taken the afternoon of the first day would have results the morning of the 2nd day. This plan worked perfectly. Test results were available, and Brenda made her flight on December 3rd from Seattle to Amsterdam, with follow-on flight from Amsterdam to Paris. Total extra cost to us, including the first test, was about $750.

The only thing was…with the flight coming to Paris from Amsterdam, no one checked anywhere to see if Brenda had a Covid-19 test.

As I was saying in the beginning, I am happy that everything eventually worked out. Our meeting at the Préfecture went well. Life is good. We wish you a Happy New Year and the best in 2021.

26 comments

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  1. Jim

    God Bless you for your persistence and patience. As a retired career military member, you have been there before. Oh, the book you could write.

    So glad you made it all happen.

  2. Pat

    Last year seemed like a struggle in vain, but good to see you overcame those items. 2021 promises to surprise also but looking forward to 2021.

    • Hugh Nelson

      Thanks and happy New Year John and Dianne. I know that you have had your fair share of technical difficulties too. Hope life is treating you both well.

  3. Maureen Meyer

    You are definitely the man to take on bureaucratic BS! You even went so far as to wipe your Mac hard drive!!! I share your determination to take on such issues (had some fun with my and some friends’ insurance issues), but this year certainly gave you a crazy onslaught of technical difficulties! So glad you and Brenda are reunited ! Tell Brenda I’m off Facebook and will email instead

    • Hugh Nelson

      Bonne année Maureen! I’ll pass your message on to Brenda. Just to clarify – I didn’t need to erase my hard drive. Macs have a system called Bootcamp where you can create a partition that dedicates part of the Mac’s hard drive for Windows – then you can install windows and switch back and forth between systems just by restarting on the other part of the drive. There are more flexible solutions with virtual machines like Parallels or VMWare, but I just needed something simple to solve this one problem (not).

  4. Donald Merry

    Wow. Just, wow. I really thought my problems in 2020 were complex and difficult. After reading your stories I have changed my opinion. All my issues are in one language, and in one country. Thank you for sharing. You and I both press on and do whatever it takes to complete our matters responsibly. The unreasonableness of others in my Kryptonite.

    • Hugh Nelson

      Bonne année Don! In reviewing all this stuff I just had this feeling that with all of the changes people made in response to the directives responding to the Covid crisis, many more unintentional problems were created that touched a lot of people. You and others may have experienced the same thing.

  5. Laurie Makinson Greig

    Well done! and clearly following the adage of “Everything always turns out–we just don’t know how and not always like we think it will.” Bisous…..

    • Hugh Nelson

      Bisous et bonne année Laurie. Saw the photo tonight of your new puppy. You may need an energy drink now and then but what fun!

  6. Kathy Parker

    Oh, the sympathetic frustration reading about your experiences evoked in me. I have been dealing with banks and courts to process my Mom’s estate (dod 12/20/2018) and I still do not have any inkling of when I will successfully settle probate. The Canadian attorneys, banking, and court systems have delayed it by almost two years now.

    • Hugh Nelson

      Bonne année Kathy, your mom’s probate must be enormously frustrating. My mother’s estate took a long time to settle, well over a year if I recall. My older brother handled all the family matters, and I think the biggest part was settling the tax bill the year after her death. With two countries involved, and two different legal systems, you have my sympathy. You wonder if anyone still remembers you or if it has all been forgotten, there is this certain grinding of the teeth while you try to stay patient, then one day some letter arrives announcing the end of everything. It is so strange – no congratulations, no party, no fireworks…just this letter that says we’re done. You sort of look around for an ice bag or something to help get your mind back to normal.

  7. Jan Hiatt

    Hugh, I’m exhausted just reading what all you went through! Good to know all is well and continuing in that foreign bureaucracy as it does elsewhere… whew. Alex drove down to visit for almost 3 weeks, he just left this morning. Hugs!

    • Hugh Nelson

      Bonne année Jan and Pete! And thank you for the New Year’s card. I sent Pete a note last night about the popularity of his 1972 Paris photos. I’m glad that Alex was able to visit for an extended stay, though myself I think I would prefer living in Wisconsin to Florida. Don’t like all that heat. Brenda thought that the article wasn’t all that uplifting – sorry. I thought it was a story that needed telling. Our best to both of you in the new year!

  8. Mark J. HARPER

    Bonne année, my friends, and Happy New Year also.

    Thanks for posting ‘technical problems’ from Paris in 2020. Made me chuckle about similar issues from six years of living in Vienna and the manner in which we both appear to have dealt with them. Such as . . . new military ID’s for all hands (myself and six dependents!) in a city without US military presence . . . recovering VAT on purchases and rent owing to diplomatic status . . . managing Blue Cross claims for the whole family [doctors, dentists, orthodontists, orthopedic surgeons (multiple rugby injuries for #3 son, rotator cuff surgery for this ancient squash player)] . . . reimbursement claims from the IRS for US taxes paid on non-taxable United Nations salary . . . managing our Annapolis house rental in absentia [hurricanes, fires, broken appliances, and yes even earthquakes!]. . . getting a mortgage from six times zones away . . . trips to the US Embassy for notarizing forms (50 Euros per signature!) . . .and buying a home I never saw, care of my bride who returned a few months before I did.
    All in a days’ work for former Navy Nukes, right?

    • Hugh Nelson

      Bonne année Mark! With your large family I’m sure you had more problems than I have. So many things to do and so little time. Still, we manage for the most part. I just finished the audio books for the whole Harry Potter series in French. I had read the books previously (also in French, never in English), but I was trying to improve my comprehension of the spoken word. Now I need a new project. Do you know about the zettelkasten (slip box in German I think) method of taking notes? That’s another project. And there’s always trying to get my landlord to fix the chaudière, we’ve been going at that one for a while now. Best to you and your family in the new year!

  9. Carl Swanstrom

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry reading of your adventures in dealing with the bureaucracies of two countries. You have the patience of Job, and I’m happy to hear that all problems were solved, and that Brenda is back with you in Paris. Wishing a happy 2021 to you and Brenda (and to all of us, for that matter).

  10. Carl Swanstrom

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry after reading of your adventures with the bureacracies of two countries. You have the patience of Job, Hugh. I guess this is he price you pay for the privelege of living in Paris. I am glad that hear that all problems were solved, and that Brenda is back home with you. I wish you and Brenda (and all of us, for that matter) a happy 2021.

    • Hugh Nelson

      Bonne année Carl, and best wishes to you in 2021. Note that I didn’t really have a choice about whether to try to solve those problems unless I wanted to give up French residence or give up primary insurance in France for Brenda. I guess I could have just paid the French taxes rather than spend all that time trying not to pay them. And if we were really daring, Brenda could have come back via Amsterdam without a Covid test, mais non.

  11. Wally

    In many ways the ‘un-documented’ route would have been easier? If there was only some way I could borrow and/or purchase some of your persistance and patience I’d be all in for that!

    • Hugh Nelson

      Bonne année Wally and Wendy! Yes, in retrospect Brenda could have just flown to Seattle, then Amsterdam, and then Paris. What we didn’t know was how they were checking their travel ban for untested Americans (and other countries) coming into France. We didn’t want to get into a situation where they just sent Brenda home. And we didn’t want her to find out she tested positive in some location where we couldn’t get her back to Spokane. So I guess we live and learn. Hopefully the next time she flies to Paris she will have received the vaccine.

  12. Areej

    In any peaceful or warlike condition, or pleasures and sufferings in their folklore, which is considered as a historical treasure, people maintain their predecessors’ customs, arts, depictions of their social life, beliefs and ideals.
    Alternatively, it can be preserved through songs and poetry, or passed down through traditional dances.

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