Three Years On, Part IV: Where is home for the immigrant?

A few days ago I began my fourth year in Paris.  I wanted to use the milestone to share some reflections on how I have changed and ongoing tips on how to make the move yourself.  This is the final article in a series of four.  Here are the first, second, and third.  

“It will be nice to be home for a month, right?”  My friend smiled, expecting an affirmative rejoinder.  I smiled too, as I knew what he meant, but I gently replied, “The US is home for my family, but Paris is my home now.”  He nodded, though his countenance said, “I want to talk to you more about that sometime,” and I’m sure my smile betokened a willingness to do so.  But I haven’t fully articulated through those thoughts, even mentally, until recently.

My recent month Stateside was full of activity – one sister got married at the start of it and another one had a baby at the end of it and all the while I carried on running my businesses while catching up with old friends.

Home.  In the seven years I lived in Kansas City it wasn’t long before I felt that warm sensation upon returning there from a trip.  Home was near family.  Home was where my friends lived.  Where my business was growing.  Where my staff worked.  Home where was where my bed was – where I had a fireplace and where I could quietly cook breakfast.  But as I look at these characteristics, even now, I realize I am describing comfort.  And yes, a component of home is comfort.  But that’s only part of it.  That’s the present.

Home.  There’s also the past.  You need to feel a rootedness and a belonging.  But that was a tenuous position for me in KC.  Yes, I finished an undergraduate degree there and built a productive company.  But it was self-made.  Perhaps that desire to connect with the past was why I loved St. Louis so much.  Not only did I have relatives buried in that city, but in the one year I lived there I felt the comfort of knowing that when a branch of my family had emigrated from Europe (from England, Ireland, and Alsace), that they settled in Southern Illinois and the St. Louis area.  Yes, Kansas City was in Missouri, but the St. Louis side of the state was actually tied up with my family history too.  Rootedness and community – people who know your name, your habits, your history, and your family.  That’s home too.  That’s the past.

Home.  Home is the future too.  I have some truly lifelong friends in KC that I cherish time with whenever I visit.  As I built my life in that area all sorts of ideas were mooted as I considered a lifelong stay.  The University of Missouri at Kansas City had a fully funded Ph.D. in Entrepreneurship that would have offered a leisurely career in academia, but it didn’t excite me, and given my experience teaching a couple semesters as an adjunct in an MBA program, it was clear that the hierarchical setup in a university setting wasn’t for me.  I considered politics (a sure indication of the naive 20-something) because I held (and still hold) practical nonpartisan civic planning principles that I think have wide appeal.  I thought about buying into businesses, and went so far as preliminary discussions with some principals of those companies.  But none of it inspired me in the visceral manner that Paris did.

Home.  Knowing you are where you belong now, with roots in the past, and a future to look forward to.  That all comes together for me in Europe, in Paris, deep in my bones.

* * *

Two weeks ago I visited the Museum of Immigration out on the edges of the 12th.  It’s a remarkably ugly building, but the exhibits and information are good, particularly in explaining the flow of different immigrants to France – some for reasons of war and violence, others for economic betterment.

As I took in the mountain of data I considered my own case.  I wasn’t fleeing war, as so many are in Europe these days because of incoherent US-led actions and policies that managed to destabilize the Middle East and North Africa.  I wasn’t seeking a better life economically.  Indeed my experience at the time of just selling a business should have encouraged me to stay.  I had moved to a US city with no connections, and with some of my own funds, a couple investors, and a co-founder, built a company from nothing to one that successfully sold and transitioned to a new owner.  I could simply wash, rinse, and repeat if I chose, with little interference and regulation from the US government.

There was also my family’s disapproval.  They, who had already considered me an absentee uncle and brother would be even more aggrieved.  But that was in part my fault for not successfully explaining to them before how differently I weighed my own personal desires and ambition against family and community pressures.

When I immigrated to the United States in 1988, I was already a citizen, but the move wasn’t my choice.  In 2013 I came to France as a noncitizen, but entirely by choice.  And like many immigrants before me, I jumped through legal hoops while setting up the infrastructure for my own businesses to be based in my new country.  I didn’t come here to “get a job.”  I came here to build a life.

I’ve always been an optimist, but it’s only recently I’ve realized that immigration – of whatever kind or character – is a supreme act of hope, not just for the “better life” which is, seemingly the only reason ever mentioned in news stories about immigration, but because it is such a big ask to make and create a new home.  Getting a new job, a new house, learning the ins and outs of a city – these things are not so hard.  But building another home – tying those long, colorful, and winding threads of past, present, and future into a coherent tapestry, that’s hard.  That’s perhaps why those of us who weren’t born here love it so much, because we don’t take any part of this experience for granted.

As the year ends, I would challenge you to consider whether you are truly living at “home.”  And if not, why not?  2017 is waiting to challenge you.

The photo is from my own instagram feed, from the day I officially moved out of America, December 10, 2013.

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Book Club: My Life in France, by Julia Child

Julia Child is best and rightly known as the woman who brought French cooking to America in an accessible and sensible way. You may know her through her recipes and her famous TV show, but this book, My Life in France, is all about the woman herself – her life in Paris and Marseille, and other places throughout Europe as WWII ended and the Cold War began. You would hardly guess that she worked for the OSS, which was the forerunner of today’s CIA – but in a way that’s believable as she really did “infiltrate” into an American kitchen that was focused on frozen foods and items you could make out of a box or tin.

It was also fascinating to hear her describe the French and their ways – it reads like it could have been written today, even though Julia is describing post-war France, almost 60 years ago!

Here’s a story she recounts about her sister Dort and struggles with French:

“Monsieur; voulez-vous couper mes chevaux avant ou apres le champignon?” The hairdresser looked at her quizzically while the ladies under the hairdryers broke into laughter. What Dort had been trying to so earnestly ask was: “Sir would you like to cut my hair before or after the shampoo?” But it came out as: “Sir, would you like to cut my horses before or after the mushroom?”

She also reflects on the reason why she felt so at home in this country:

“I looked out the window. I had come to the conclusion that I must really be French, only no one had ever informed me of this fact. I loved the people, the food, the lay of the land, the civilized atmosphere, and the generous pace of life.”

On the French attitude towards “modernizing,” which I laughed out loud reading:

“The individualistic, artisanal quality of the French baffled the men Paul called the “Marshall Plan hustlers” from the USA. When American experts began making “helpful” suggestions about how the French could “increase productivity and profits,” the average Frenchman would shrug, as if to say: “These notions of yours are all very fascinating, no doubt, but we have a nice little business here just as it is. Everybody makes a decent living. Nobody has ulcers. I have time to work on my monograph about Balzac, and my foreman enjoys his espaliered pear trees. I think, as a matter of fact, we do not wish to make these changes you suggest.”

Indeed – it is this contrarian view against the rush of globalization and frenetic intemperance combined with a balanced attitude of “enough” that attracts so many of us to France.

Of course, this is a book by Julia Child and you will find yourself, if you have even the slightest inclination towards cooking, jotting down recipes or tips she casually sprinkles throughout the book.

It’s a great read, with quite a few photos, many of which were taken by her loving and devoted husband Paul Child.

A version of this article originally appeared on my Goodreads page.  If you like what I wrote here, consider tipping.

Three Years On, Part III: Cost of Living

Next month I begin my fourth year in Paris.  I wanted to use the milestone to share some reflections on how I have changed and ongoing tips on how to make the move yourself.  This is the third in a series of four.  You can find the first one here and the second one here.

People are always a bit shocked when I say it’s “not that expensive” to live here.  I say that because I am thinking of places like NYC, SF, Tokyo, Hong Kong, London, etc. where it really is shockingly expensive to live.  Paris isn’t, and rather than just tell you my “feelings” I have put together a spreadsheet for you based on my basic expenses across the last 3 years (I have not included weekend trips/vacations because that really varies per person).

Category Year 1 (2014) Years 2-3 (2015-2016) Comments
Rent 8 m^2, 650€/mo 39 m^2, 1350€/mo both apartments furnished
Location 17eme 2eme I don’t see the point of living in the suburbs; Paris is worth paying for.
Taxe d’habitation n/a 80€/mo once you switch to a working visa you are fully responsible for this
Utilities & internet 40€/mo 80€/mo sometimes these are included
Food 100€/mo 200€/mo in Year 1 that was 90% canned, whereas now it’s 100% fresh
Cellphone 70€/mo 70€/mo I’ve never skimped on this because I make a lot of calls to the US and travel in Europe a lot. This package comes with unlimited calls to the USA and 20 gigs of data which I can use anywhere in Europe AND the USA.
Health Insurance 35€/mo 70€/mo I now participate in the French Health care system so those payments are quite a bit more than my “foreigner’s insurance” (roughly double) but it means I am fully covered.
Renter’s Insurance 20€/mo 22€/mo some landlords don’t require this, but the prefecture almost always does.
Metro 25€/mo 75€/mo In my first year I just tried to make do with the occasional ticket purchase, but it’s just too much nuisance. I don’t use the metro all the time, but the annual pass gives me access to all of Ile de France for free on the weekends
Legal and Accounting 100€/mo 100€/mo Unless you possess a very special set of skills you will need help filing your French tax return as well as dealing with specific questions on your dossier for the prefecture
Etc 100€/mo 200€/mo this is for haircuts or clothing or spending money and varies per person.   I’m a single male in my 30s with strong minimalist tendencies, so keep that in mind.
Monthly Totals 1140€/mo 2197€/mo you can see that as a visitor, it’s not a big burden if you’re willing to sacrifice (e.g. canned food), but when you’ve decided to settle in here, it’s going to cost a lot more.
Annual Totals 13680€/year 26364€/year The French government will require access to more than 13k€ per year for the long term stay visa. I’m just pointing out you won’t actually need more.

What are some expenses you didn’t plan for?  Feel free to share in the comments below.

Three Years On, Part II: Changes

Next month I begin my fourth year in Paris.  I wanted to use the milestone to share some reflections on how I have changed and ongoing tips on how to make the move yourself.  This is the second in a series of four.  You can find the first one here.

When people ask me “Why France?” I usually answer the question in Russian-doll format – answering “why Europe,” then “why France,” then “why Paris.”  So too, when I reflect on how three years of living in Europe have changed me, I think in these categories.

PARIS

Cars: more than ever I am anti-car.  Paris has an outstanding and extensive network of buses, trams, metros, and bikes, all overlaid across a city which is eminently walkable.  I support the current Mayor’s ongoing legislative push to exclude cars from the city center.  Cars are not a divine right.  They are an innovation, and they need to be put in their place side-by-side with pedestrians, bikes, scooters, etc., not accommodated as the sine qua non of modern life.

Neighborhood-focused: in my first year in Paris I went all over the city to visit restaurants and bars to know the city better, until I fell into the familiar routine of most Parisians: staying within a 15 minute walk of my apartment.  There is a deep comfort and familiarity that comes from knowing your streets and block by heart.  Sixty-five percent of my Paris life is located inside 8 streets near my house in the 2nd.  I love that, and I love knowing all the nooks and crannies that make up that little world.

FRANCE

Language: with classes and study it’s not difficult to obtain a conversational level of French quite quickly – but beyond that you will have to study diligently, because if you don’t have to speak a lot of French every day, your progress will be slower than those who do.  I’ve learned to be patient with my progress.

Scale change: France is roughly “.8 Texas” in size, I often tell people.  I’ve gotten used to the idea that France is a “big country” and that Belgium is a “small country” and that Liechtenstein is a “tiny country.”  When I contemplate it now I realize just how enormous the US seems to most of the rest of the world.  And yet, as a believer in smaller countries (I believe they are more easily governed) I am ever more convinced that the US is simply too large of a country to be governed well.  It’s breaking into 3-5 nations would do the entire world much good, as the instant effects would be to end dollar hegemony and US military overreach.  It’s also the only circumstance under which I would ever contemplate a return to the US, because then there would be real hope for real change.

Bureaucracy: I understand the French completely in this regard now.  They want all their paperwork just so, and everytime I’ve had it thus, the process, whatever it has been, has been expeditious.  Fill out the forms and wait.

Dairy Snob: In America it is the cereal and snack isles that present you with almost limitless choices, though it’s all highly processed and generally not good for you.  In France you are confronted with that same panoply of choice when you get to the cheese, yogurt, and dairy sections.  The French truly love their dairy products, and most French cows are kept in the grazing conditions they have enjoyed for centuries.  You get to really love good butter, cheese, yogurt, and milk.

EUROPE

Guns: I have come to realize that America’s gun culture is a weird substitute religion.  I served in the US military and as such have, in the past, owned and used guns for range practice, to keep up my marksmanship.  But this whole “right to bear arms” is an irrelevancy in the age of drones.  Stockpiling weapons only makes sense if you’re:

a) paranoid enough to think that the government is going to come to take them or
b) stupid enough to think you have training, skills, or firepower to resist if they do or
c) you are willing to die for the abstract “right to bear arms” (whatever that means) which would make you a martyr for your gun religion.

Guns, in their proper context, can be an enjoyable hobby, like archery.  But in America, it’s a religion, and that’s unfortunate, because it’s pretty poor fare, as religions go.

The EU: I came to Europe as a hardcore Euroskeptic and lover of small government and nation-state sovereignty.  I was in Glasgow for the Scottish Referendum in 2014, cheering for Yes, I was in London for Brexit, cheering for Leave, and yet I live in France, a nation that was a founding member of what is now known as the EU.

I would say that I am still a lover of small government and would happily support Scottish departure from the UK and Catalonian separation from Spain.  Let them try it on their own.  The worst that can happen is failure – but at least it’s something ventured.

And yet, I see that the EU does do good.  I accept that it has played a role in keeping the peace, but it must share credit at least equally with NATO, which has more than words to back itself up.  If the EU is to succeed (and I’m not opposed to its success) its future might lie in a two-tier approach – one in which there is tighter, deeper cooperation – for example with France, Benelux, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, in which there is an integrated government, executive, and judiciary, and a second tier which is the greater EU, which would lie outside a currency union but exist in a free trade zone with some limitations on freedom of movement.  This would allow countries to sign up for more Europe or less Europe, and it would be better than the current “one size fits all” absurdity that puts Greece in a currency union with Germany.  The world is changing and the EU too must change if it wants to not just survive, but thrive.  Hence I remain a Euroskeptic…of the current iteration of the EU.  Hopefully it can change, especially as Brexit negotiations will lead to existential questions.

Pace of Travel: When I was a tourist visiting Europe from the States, and even in my first year here, I was in a frantic “see all the things” mode.  Who knew when I would be in Europe again, I thought to myself, so why not go at a breakneck pace?  But when you live here you realize it’s all within reach, be it a 10€ bus ticket, 25€ train ride, or 50€ flight.  And, should you keep your health and wits about you, it will continue to endure and be there for you.  So, when my friends come to visit, I try to slow them down too.

Pace of Life: This is perhaps the most wonderful thing about my life in Europe.  I’m a business owner and have been for many years.  As such I’ve been able to take off for short and long trips at almost any time of the year.  But I could only do so with fellow independents.  In Europe, all my friends with jobs have plenty of vacation time, and as such we can take short trips together all throughout the year.  We partition life and work and leave the office in its place when it’s time for life, and vice versa.  Americans throw around the phrase “work hard play hard” but, in Europe, it’s just called life: there’s work, there’s life, and time to enjoy both.  No need to binge or “go hard” on either.

Through all these changes I observe that there is no “right” way to do things in various countries and cultures.  There are just different ways to do things.  But, some of those ways are better than others, and I happen to think that Europe does a lot of things well.

Three Years On, Part I: Penseés for those planning to move to France

Next month I begin my fourth year in Paris.  I wanted to use the milestone to share some reflections on how I have changed and ongoing tips on how to make the move yourself.  This is the first in a series of four.

I’ve successfully obtained two different classes of visa, long-term visitor (part one and two, and renewal) and independant, also known as profession liberale (part one and two).  It’s been really gratifying to get mail from readers who simply printed out those articles, followed them to the letter,  and got visas. Indeed, I spent so much time researching and documenting the process that I now offer paid consulting services (in person and via skype) to those seeking these visas, and refer those seeking other types of visas to professionals I have grown to know and trust.  Today I want to share, in broad strokes, just a few of the points I touch on when speaking to readers who use my consulting services.

What is a scouting trip?

This is the chance for you to take off your tourist hat and visit Paris as a possible resident.  You go to visit apartments that are in your price range to rent, even if you aren’t going to be in town for a while.  You meet with people who work in your industry (if you have a job) or meet with business owners in your field (if you’re an entrepreneur).  You go to Meetups and Coworking spaces to build a network and get to know the city a bit.  If you need a bit of assistance here, use Shapr.  And yeah, take a daytrip and/or a trip to a nearby country to remind yourself of what’s at your doorstep when you live in this gem of a city.

What is the number one mistake made by those coming to Paris for the first time?

Not having your housing situation locked down.  In fact a friend of an acquaintance showed up and was living in hostels and airbnbs, and was completely clueless as to just how tight this market was (and is), and after 45 days of searching and applying to over 2 dozen places, gave up and went back to her country.  To be fair, I think she came for a job, not for the city, so she wasn’t committed to persevering, financially or emotionally, but I’m shocked to see even graduate students not take a very serious stance on this.  I recently coached a friend through this process who is enrolled in a 2-year graduate program but only had arranged for a 4-month airbnb stay with no backup plan.  Paris Expat found her a great place but witnessing her anxiety reminded me of my heady early days when I was in an airbnb for 90 days before moving to my first apartment in Paris, a little shoebox in the sky, on the 8th floor of a centuries-old building in the 17th.

What is one ongoing nuisance?

Bank accounts.  I’ve written about it here and here and it seems at the moment that unless you are a fiscal resident of France, US citizens are being granted French bank accounts only with a lot of difficulty and documentation.  (Two readers of this blog who are not fiscal residents did manage to get an account at Credit Agricole, after being turned down at Societe Generale and BNP Paribas, among other places.)

There are a few workarounds.  You could, like my friend Patty, use your American credit card to pay for everything (maybe even earning points and miles), and then settle that bill every month from your American bank account, withdrawing petty cash as needed from that account.

Alternatively, if your only major French-focused transaction each month is your rent payment, Transferwise will also allow you to pay a French bank account directly from your US bank account, with a bare minimum of fees, which is a lot more fun that withdrawing hundreds of euros from an ATM and then handing that to your landlord.

If you want a complement to the Transferwise solution you can use Revolut, which issues you a chip and pin card which you can load up in the currency of your choice from the bank account of your choice, all manageable from an app.  Did I mention it’s all totally free? 🙂

What is one thing you cannot do too much of before arriving?

Conversational French.  You can take all the classes you want and know 6 different tenses and a lot of vocabulary, but if you haven’t practiced speaking French, you will be in for a rude awakening when you arrive.  In a way, I parse it as the difference between “studying” French and “learning” it.  You can “study” all you want, but your “learning” will commence when you arrive and get to speak this lovely language every day, and hear the pace, cadence, and the distinct Parisian pronunciation.  Get a private tutor, join a local meetup language group, use an app, and maybe, as a last resort, take classes (they are time consuming and move only as quickly as the slowest person in the class).  As I post this article I am spending a month in the States and to keep my French up I’m attending the local French conversational meetup.

What did you fail to do adequately?

Budget.  There’s always “one more expense” I could not have foreseen.  If I could go back and do it again I would have taken my planned-down-to-the-centime budget and multiplied it by 1.25, thereby giving myself just an extra bit of fat.  As it turned out, the squeeze on my budget in the 11th month of my stay caused me to start another small business to generate more cash flow.  So, in my case the squeeze created a great new thing, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t have benefited from the “1.25” strategy myself.

Last thing…

Find and develop French friends.  Severely limit your reliance and/or attendance at “expat” bars or events, which ironically use English as the linguafranca.  I’ve found there is no faster way to the heart, stomach, and soul of France than my French friends.  They will help you with your French, ask for help with their English, and give you genuine local reaction to news, politics, and new places you want to try.

The photo was taken by my friend Domo on a recent visit to the Rodin Museum.  On almost every first Sunday when many museums are free, a group of us go out for brunch and a museum visit.  To date we have seen 22 museums together.

I’ve been beta-testing a private facebook group for readers of the blog.  Feel free to join it here.  If you’re interested in my writing in general, you can check out my Patreon page.  

French Work Benefits: truly unbelievable

We were in line to pay for our portions of the meal.  It was in Grenoble and many of my native French companions had opted for raclettes, the delicious and hearty mountain food of the Alps.  I wanted to encounter Savoyarde cuisine a bit more “head on” and opted for tete-de-veau.  As the guest in front of me paid, she ripped off a sequence of cheques, each denominated in 10€.  My eyes drifted to the bottom of the cheque: it read “cheque vacance.”  I made the mental connection, and then incredulous, I started laughing.  “Quoi?” my friend nudged.  “You…you…you people get money to go on vacation?” I queried.  Julien laughed, “Oui, mon ami.”  As we got into the car to drive back to Paris after a weekend of skiing, I made a note in my journal: “Hunt down all French work benefits.”  That was almost two years ago, and it’s high time I finally shared my findings with you.  Americans, please take a seat.  You’re not going to believe this.

I’ve divided the benefits into two categories.  There are the benefits that are required by law, which everyone gets, and there are those “optional” benefits which are only provided by certain companies.  I’m going to leave aside the discussion of cadre/non-cadre as well as CDD vs. CDI for another time.  I just want to focus on benefits.

Standard Benefits (required by law)

RTT (Réduction du Temps de Travail)

Everyone knows about the 35-hour work week, but what you don’t know is that the French are required to be compensated for the time they work beyond those 35 hours, and that comes out to a minimum of 2.5 days per month, every month of the year, at most large companies for those on a CDI.  That adds up to 30 days per year using that accounting – though some have told me they get as “few” as 10 days per year as they are only on the clock for 38,5 hours per week.

CP (Congés Payés)

Everyone is required, after the first year of work, to be provided with an additional 5 weeks of paid vacation per year.  If you add the RTT and CP, you can begin to understand why the entire country is gone from roughly July 15-September 1st, and still has leftovers for personal vacations in the Winter and Spring.

Fêtes Nationales

The National Holidays were actually more numerous before the disestablishment of the Catholic Church (“holiday” is simply an elision of “Holy Day”) and because Napoleon wanted to show his power over the Church, in the Condordat he signed with Pope Pius VII in 1801, he suppressed a number of ancient feast days.  So, the number of national holidays would be even higher if it weren’t for Napoleon, who had a bit of a workaholic streak in him.  As it is, the national holidays of France, long called “bank holidays” in England, to commemorate that country’s true religion, finance, include:

The Circumcision (January 1st)
Easter Monday
Labor Day (May 1st)
Ascension Thursday
V-E Day (May 8th)
Pentecost Monday
July 14th
The Assumption (August 15th)
All Saints (November 1st)
Armistice Day (November 11th)
Christmas (December 25th)

If you were keeping track, that’s 11 days.  For a so-called secular state, the French do keep an overwhelming majority of ancient Catholic feast days, with only one “commemoration” of  bloodthirsty revolution.  I suppose you could count Armistice Day and V-E Days as commemorations of the wars that democracy gave us.

Public Transport subsidy

If you take public transportation to work, your employer must subsidize at least 50% of the cost of your pass.

Food subsidy

I couldn’t get a clear answer on the exact amounts, but you get vouchers called “ticket restaurant,” which are a 50/50 split between you and your employer.  This means if you get a series of 10€ daily vouchers, you have contributed 5€ and your employer has matched 5€, making for 10€.  Some, like my friend Adam, get as much as 19€/day, and keep in mind, you aren’t limited to buying lunch only with those vouchers: you can use them for grocery shopping.  There is some movement away from the vouchers into a electronic debit card-based system (to prevent hoarding and mass-cashing at the end of the year), but that will take a while.

American reaction: “You get free money!”
French response (glumly, with a frown): “Yeah, we pay half.”

American glares at French person.
French person shrugs, repeats and says, “What, it’s true!”

Tuition Reimbursement

If you wish to take classes or training, possibly even training to change your career and quit your current job, your employer has to pause your job and allow you to take those classes.  Your employer may refuse twice, but may not refuse if you request a third time.

Compte Professionnel de Formation (formerly droit individuel à la formation)

You earn points in a personal account even via part-time work.  You can use these points towards paid training and certifications either in your career or to change careers.  These points do not expire and belong to you, not your employer.

Wait, there’s more vacation: Maternity and Paternity Leave

French women are entitled to 16 weeks of paid maternity leave and French men are entitled to 11 days of paid paternity leave, though the French men are having to be encouraged to use this benefit as its culturally quite new.

Life Days Off (yes, more vacation)

If you get married, you are entitled to 4 days off, if you get into a civil union, you can get 1 day off.  If there is a death in your direct family (spouse or children), you can get 2 days off.  If one of your children is getting married, you can get one day off.

Mutuelle (because inexpensive health care wasn’t good enough)

Beginning this year, the Mutuelle, which was a paid private plan you could acquire (from a number of different companies) to make up the balance of payments of the 30% of medical costs you often handle (the State takes on 70%) now has to be provided for you by your employer.  So that bit of health care you did have to pay for?  That’s been taken care of as well.

Optional Benefits (yeah, there’s even more)

Treizième mois

So, some companies pay you for a “13th month” each year.  The purpose?  So you don’t have to set aside savings to pay for your taxes.

Cheques Vacance

You heard about this already – this kicked off the idea for this article years ago.

Cheques Cadeau

Well, because at Christmastime, you can’t actually be expected to pull from your savings to buy gifts.  Grab your chequebook, with 10-15 cheques denominated in, you guessed it, 10€ increments.

Comité d’enterprise

If you have at least 50 employees, this is required and .2% of the company wages must be diverted to fund the benefits it provides, which includes discounted movie and theater tickets, among other things.  Smaller companies do not necessarily have this.

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So, whenever I begin to catalogue this list of benefits to the French, I get some silly speech about how they “fought” for these “rights” and that they have been “earned.”  This is, of course, absurd.  No one has a “right” to a job.  Those of us who have actually signed the front of a paycheck, not just the back, know that.  These laws are coercive measures that are leveled by the French government on companies that do business in France.  It is to maintain a standard of living in this magnificent jewel of a country.  The only price?  Innovation.

The reason that the US and other countries so far outdistance not just France, but Europe, in innovation, is because startups are allowed to figure life out before they are yoked with the duties of taxation.  France, as the laws are currently construed, is a fundamentally anti-business country.  There is no balance whatsoever – it is all about the responsibilities and obligations of the employers, which must take all the risk, while the State and the citizens/employees are completely shielded.  This is not real life.  This is the artificial reality created in France.

What do the French retain in exchange for losing the ability to innovate at the speed of the internet?  Stability.  The French have a really good life, thank you very much, and they don’t care if they aren’t keeping up with the rest of the world.  And that’s what those of us who come to this country to make our lives are fundamentally at peace with: the unbelievable burden carried solely by the private sector of the French economy is the price that is paid to have such a good life.  No one forces these French companies to stay here – they can leave and go anytime they want – and the young French don’t have to create companies here – they can go to the US or other friendlier climes.  This isn’t to say that there is no startup scene here in France.  There is – it’s exciting – and I’ve been pleased and privileged to work with and interact with some of these startups in the guise of my own small French startup.  These French are earnest about the opportunities, okay with the lack of a safety net, and grateful for the flexibility that the startup universe offers.  But they face challenges they simply would not have to face in America – and it slows them down.

But that’s the question at the heart of this: is speed what you’re after?  If so, then France isn’t for you, anyway.  Come here for stability, tradition, and pride.  But let’s be clear: these benefits cannot reasonably be construed into a narrative of “rights” that were “earned.”  It’s a ransom that is extorted.  It is paid perhaps reluctantly, but it is paid, nonetheless.  Because life really is that good here, despite all the hassles, paperwork, and these days, bombs and bullets.

The photo was taken at the hottest times of the protests against the new reform of labor laws this year, back in May.  That was, of course, before severe flooding prematurely dampened the resolve of people complaining about gold-plated privileges they never earned and consider “rights.”

Book Club: Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell

George Orwell is perhaps best known for his seminal works 1984 and Animal Farm.  One of his lesser-known works that I’ve come to appreciate is Down and Out in Paris and London.  The book is an examination of working class poverty in 1929 Paris and London.  It is true that George Orwell had a safety net.  Just as Thoreau lived on Emerson’s property for free and often went back into Concord to either dine or do laundry while he toiled away writing Walden, Orwell always had the ability to contact his middle-class family for help if he did get into real trouble.  Knowing that does, in a way, vitiate some of the desperation we read about.

That being said, the short chronicle, weighing in at just past 200 pages, is worth the read, if only to appreciate just how “first-world” our problems these days really are when so many of us have running water, indoor plumbing, and a bed to call our own.

For, when you are approaching poverty, you make one discovery which outweighs some of the others.  You discover boredom and mean complications and the beginnings of hunger, but you also discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact that it annihilates the future. (from Chapter III)

Obviously, there is a stoic positivity to this – who needs to worry about tomorrow?  Focus on the daily.  And yet, that annihilation of the future also implies a destruction of dreams and goals.

There’s a humorous moment in the book when I realized that immigration problems don’t just belong to our century.  Orwell recounts a visit to the pawnshop:

And then, after all our trouble, the receiver at the pawnshop again refused the overcoats.  He told me (one could see his French soul revelling in the pedantry of it) that I had not sufficient papers of identification; my carte d’identité was not enough, and I must show a passport or addressed envelopes.  Boris had addressed envelopes by the score, but his carte d’identité was out of order (he never renewed it, so as to avoid the tax), so we could not pawn the overcoats in his name. (from Chapter VII, emphasis mine)

There’s also an unexpected insight into the life of waiters and service staff in Parisian hotels and restaurants, where Orwell has to turn for work as his money dwindles away to nothing.  One would hope that hygiene and other practices recounted in the book have improved…but perhaps they are simply toned down rather than gone.

A good 65% of the book is dedicated to Paris – the rest to London.  Perhaps the biggest surprise was how prepared the English were to accommodate the homeless through a series of government shelters.  They were dreadful, but still offered room and board for a night.

In one of the final chapters Orwell reflects that: “The evil of poverty is not so much that it makes a man suffer as that it rots him physically and spiritually.”  If the book inspires you to do anything, it may be to help people out of poverty, and the first world does have real and practical tools to do that, starting with sites like Kiva, which allows you to loan as little as $25 to people looking to improve their lives around the world through various endeavors and projects.

But perhaps the lasting lesson for me is that today, as in Orwell’s time, it is possible to live meanly, or even well, for not a lot of money.  Reading about the darkness Orwell experienced makes you appreciate the City of Light that much more.

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