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.

August in France

It is quiet.  Wonderfully quiet.  Not just in Paris but everywhere you go in France.  On July 15th, after some national holiday that will go unnamed, the French decide that it’s been a solid 10.5 months of work, and that it’s close enough to 12 to round up and call it a year.  They depart in all directions, with a plan to return on or around September 1st.

Effectively this means you’re on your own if you choose to stay in your particular part of France.  90% of the local restaurants and shops close, and here in Paris, it’s the tourists who now outnumber the locals.  Everything feels slower because everything is slower.  Normally I would say this is in part due to the weather, but given the fluctuations of the last six months, I’m uncertain as to whether there is a correlation any longer between the season of the year and the expected climate.

My second card

The last card said “Visitor” and specifically prohibited working.  This one recognized my new status and interestingly was dated from the date of my follow-up visit to the Prefecture in April, not the date I received my first recipisse, in January.  This permanently shifts my renewal date to April, which is nice as I can now avoid the end of the year congestion that I have grown used to.  You’ll also see a new permanent entrance to the Prefecture at Cite:


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It ostensibly provides more safety via a double-doored security controlled entrance.  It’s just to the right, about 50 meters from the entrance you are used to.

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No, I’m not mad, bro.

Interestingly, the lady who issued me my carte took about five minutes (which felt longer due too the dread) rechecking all the paperwork from the previous two visits.  I remained stoic and impassive, and I kept telling myself, “Don’t sweat it, you’ve got everything in order.”  Sure enough, she stamped and signed all that was needed and that was “case closed.”

Please don’t make too much of my facial expression.  You’re specifically prohibited from smiling in official French photos. 🙂

Grand Train

Last weekend I took one of my meetup groups to Grand Train.  It’s part of an 8-year redevelopment project and rather than just have a boring old construction site, some smarties got together and created essentially a pop-up party that reminded me of the gently convivial atmospheres of the ruin pubs of Budapest.

Entrance is free and in addition to numerous train exhibits there are pop-up food shacks and indoor and outdoor seating galore.  It runs through October and you would do well to get in early (around 15h-17h) and leave early (before 22h) as it starts to get very crowded at that point.

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Outdoor Film Festival is back on…but not outdoors

La Villette, on the edges of the 19th, usually plays host to an outdoor film festival all summer long.  However, following the attacks in Nice, the Mairie de Paris laid down specific security expectations for outdoor events and the film festival couldn’t comply and it was tentatively suspended “until further notice.”  After a couple weeks of hand-wringing it was decided not to waste all the planning that had gone into selecting the films and organizing showing dates and the festival has been moved indoors to the Grand Halle.  If you want to join our Film and Supper Club we are going to watch Akira Kurosawa’s Ran next week.

Happy to be here

Despite this being my third year in France, this is my first full August in Paris, as the last two summers I was working in Switzerland.  Alas, they passed a law that went into effect earlier this year that restricted the number of non-EU persons that could work on temporary summer contracts, and my wings were clipped.  I was certainly down the first week I got the news, back in March, but the summer has proved what I suspected to be true back then: more opportunities would arise while I was in Paris, not in Switzerland, during July and August, and I would have more of a chance to explore parts of France that I have not before.  There are still two weeks to go before the Rentreé and I’m very glad to have these quiet summer days pretty much to myself (or to accompany friends who have never had Five Guys to taste their first one).

Book Club: A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway

After the November attacks of last year many French begin reading this book as an act of defiance.  It was left among some of the tributes at Republique and other places.  More than one French friend told me that it was a chance to look at Paris through a foreigner’s eyes, and its sudden resurgence made it okay to read something that is often seen as too “cliché” for the French to read.

For those of us who write in Paris, it’s impossible to avoid Hemingway’s shadow.  Whether we are browsing the stacks at Shakespeare and Company, or walking near the Place Contrescarpe, or even when writing in a cafe, we might imagine Hemingway himself toiling away in a corner over a notebook near empty glasses of rum.  He’s writing, and he glances up to see a girl sitting by herself waiting for someone.  She has a face “fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair black as a crow’s wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek.”  If the description of her strikes you, you can imagine the effect she had on Hemingway as he tried to refocus and concentrate on the story at hand.

“I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought.  You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.”

And what was that writing process like?  “So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there” and “Write the best story that you can and write it as straight as you can.”

While Hemingway describes some measure of poverty during his time here, it’s nowhere near the harrowing account that George Orwell gives in Down and Out in Paris and London, a book I will cover in a future installment of this series.  Yet, almost 100 years later, I think this is still very true: “In Paris, then, you could live very well on almost nothing and by skipping meals occasionally and never buying any new clothes, you could save and have luxuries.

More than anything, this book is a snapshot of life of life in Paris, amidst writers and artists, between 1921 and 1926.  We see all the usual suspects – Sylvia Beach, Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald (and Zelda), as well as so many landmarks that are still around like Le Deux Magots and Brasserie Lipp.  And of course, there is his wife, whom he manages to lose in the course of the writing, due to his own self-admitted infidelity.  She’s not an integral enough part of the work for you to really feel the loss, but she does provide bookends to the story and to his time there.

Read it because you’re an American or because you’re not but want to get the quintessential “American in Paris” viewpoint.  Or because you want to see just how little the city has changed in a century.

The featured image is of Hemingway in his Left Bank apartment in 1924. 

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Guest Post: Paris Greeters, by Craig Ziegler

Every now and then my readers tell me about something interesting that I feel needs to be better known and I’ll often ask them to write about it themselves.  Craig was actually kind enough to follow through.  Enjoy!

Before my last visit to Paris I learned of the Global Greeters Network, an association of organizations around the world whose mission is to introduce visitors to volunteers who will take them on guided walks, at no charge, through their areas and give them a first-hand look at the places they call home. I was surprised to see how many cities had a Greeters organization and pleased to see that Paris had Paris Greeters.

Paris Greeters works like this: once you register with the website, you can request a walk (they don’t call them tours) with a volunteer. After taking into account your interests, language preference, mobility, the date of your availability, etc., a coordinator will assign you to a volunteer who will take you on a walk through his/her neighborhood in Paris. You don’t get to choose your walk; they choose it for you!

I signed up and received an offer of a guided walk through the Bastille quartier with Francoise. Even though I had walked through this area many times over my 15 years of visiting Paris, I accepted the assignment just for the experience. I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.

I met Francoise at the Ledru-Rollin Metro stop at 10:00 AM on a Thursday. She was a wonderful walking companion and her English was excellent. Over the next 2 1/2 hours of strolling through the eastern Bastille area, she showed me beautiful courtyards that I had never seen, as well as artisan areas that dated back to the Revolution.  She was so knowledgeable about her neighborhood and she had access to all the private properties. We walked past a historic dance hall on rue de Lappe, the Balajo, that was closed that morning, but she unexpectedly talked the custodian into letting us go inside for a look around at this wonderful slice of Parisian life.

We ended our walk at the Marché d’Aligre, an historic, multi-cultural, covered market in the 12th arrondissement with an extensive flea market outside. She ended the walk there by telling me how proud she was that so many cultures lived together in Paris in peace. She believed that the market area demonstrated this better than her words could explain it.  Paris Greeters do not charge for these walks with visitors, but a visitor can make a contribution to the organization if one would like. I donated €20 and received an email receipt from the organization shortly afterward.

My walk with Francoise was a wonderful experience and I will surely arrange another such walk in some quartier of Paris when I return this year.

Postscript: This walk occurred eight days before the attacks of November 13. I wanted to contact Francoise after the attacks to get her perspective; the Bataclan is only 2.5 kilometers from her Marché d’Aligre. I didn’t have the heart to call, but I know she was devastated.

The Airbnb War continues in Paris

I wrote some time back rather passionately about forces conspiring to stifle Airbnb and Uber in Paris.  The City of Paris recently upped the ante by publishing a website that shows all the properties that are “properly registered” as airbnbs in the city.  Unsurprisingly, the French, operating from a cultural sensitivity to “denouncements” of neighbors during WWII, reacted strongly to this and labeled it a “rat on your neighbors” policy.  If anything, it will cause a backlash among even those neutral to slightly negative on airbnb.

To catch up those who aren’t familiar with the intricacies of Parisian housing policy, anyone is allowed to rent space within their own personal home, for example a spare room or a couch in a living room, provided that they either own the space or have permission from the landlord.  In one recent landmark case, an owner sued a tenant and won for letting out an apartment without permission.  The law additionally allows you to rent a space you don’t occupy for up to 120 days a year, which would cover a long absence from Paris (or several) for whatever reason.

The argument goes that these short-term rentals are changing the makeup of the city and of particular neighborhoods, and to an extent, this is true.  And yet, all these short-term rentals represent opportunities of pure revenue for Paris – everyone coming to the city is going to spend money and hotels and hostels alone don’t meet demand.  Indeed, Airbnb has moved the goalposts on what a travel stay consists of now – no longer prisoner to the social desert of a hotel or the social overload of a hostel, people can choose a third way, in which they sometimes have an unofficial guide to the city, whether that be as simple as answering a few questions before arrival or as far as leading them on a cool walk about town.  Airbnb is now saying, “don’t just visit there, live there, if only for one night.”

Paris is unlikely to get Berlinian about Airbnb, but given that there are fewer than 200 properties on the “official” register out of over 40,000 listings makes it clear that there is still a gap in reality and expectation between a city being brutally lobbied by the hotel industry (and a Republique that is insistent on taxing everything it can touch, and even what it can’t) and a Parisian populace only too glad to get some help paying the bills by renting out some personal space.  In a way, it’s time for the residents of Paris to benefit from Paris’ reputation as well – given that that they have to put up with (without compensation) a neverending flow of tourists  throughout the year.

For now, it seems clear that anyone who is renting out wholly unoccupied spaces on a short-term basis 100% of the year better watch out.  I suggest divesting yourself or pivoting into long-term rentals.  Otherwise, be warned that the city is coming for you, and it will cost you tens of thousands of euros if you get caught.

Book Club: Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gopnik

My favorite book written about Paris from the expat perspective is the series of essays written for The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik that was later compiled into a book called Paris to the Moon.  As the book’s magical title promises, it is a thoughtful and earnest look at a city Gopnik never intended to permanently live in, but experienced more deeply in six years than some people do in a lifetime.  

Gopnik has gifted me with some ways to express feelings and sentiments I have in my new country, from saying that we “breathe in our native language, but swim in our second,” to his chapter on “Distant Errors” in which he deconstructs, albeit kindly, the French tendency to look at problems or errors as distant – as something external rather than related to their own thinking and behaving, to his explanation of “white helicopter” thinking among the French (in contrast to the American “black helicopter” idiom, which is a meme for conspiracy theories) that there is always the possibility that a future government will offer a higher pension and a lower retirement age.

Adam’s approach to life in France is certainly one I wish to emulate, though my French needs to improve in order to do so.  He is at home as the American he will always be, while truly attempting to live life as the French do, day in and day out, in dealing with strikes, by protesting the takeover of a favorite restaurant, by enjoying holidays enthusiastically (I wonder sometimes if the French love the planning and anticipation more than the holiday itself), and even in the ceremony of childbirth, which both he and his wife participate in.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the book particularly germane to the subjects covered in this blog: “Everything about moving to Paris has been wonderful, and everything about emigrating to France, difficult.”

As it perhaps, should be.  This life should only be available to those who truly want it.