Bureaucratic mentality

If you move to France, prepare for their national pastime: bureaucracy.


Getting the paperwork ready for our trip to the French consulate in San Francisco last year to apply for our visa. Application forms, passports, additional passport photos, birth certificates, marriage certificate, various notarized affidavits, bank statements… And: proof we’ve rented a place to live and a record of our airline tickets (both of which we needed to have secured before they would grant the visa to actually stay in France).

Its tentacles are everywhere. Getting a visa, getting a residency card (carte de séjour), getting a driver’s license (something I am so, so, so, so glad I don’t have to do)… seems everyone’s got a story of a bureaucratic headache.

So far we’ve done well. Last year, when we went to the French Consulate in San Francisco armed with all of our paperwork to apply for a visa, we escaped without being tasked with providing them any more paperwork than what we’d brought with us, something that apparently happens with some frequency.

(I could tell the woman we met with was more than ready to saddle us with providing more documentation. Twice during our interview she shook her head because she didn’t think we had everything we needed. In the first instance, I pointed out the supposedly missing document in the stack sitting before her. The second time it turned out she was holding the thing she said we were missing. I’m not positive, but I think she was disappointed.)

Upon getting a visa and arriving in France, the next step is a visit to the OFII office (l’Office Francais de l’Immigration et de l’Integration) within three months of arrival. It’s a kind of bizarre cross between the ER and the DMV. Really.

First, you must prove that you are actually living in France. How do you do this? By showing them your gas bill, of course.

Apparently one’s gas bill is the Holy Grail of proof of residence. Okay, but there’s just one problem: we don’t get a gas bill. We pay our landlord one monthly fee that covers everything—which is shockingly not very bureaucratic, although rather convenient for us. But it means no gas bill. This actually had me a bit worried, since I’ve heard stories of people flunking their OFII visit because they didn’t have all the right paperwork (and after our experience at the consulate, I well believed it). Would I get some administrator who prized the gas bill above all? Or was the whole thing overblown? It’s hard to know. Almost everyone I’ve met who’s lived overseas has some kind of interesting visa story to tell. Was I about to have mine?

Happily, the woman I met with was satisfied with the paperwork I had from my landlord. I confirmed: this is okay? You don’t need anything else? It’s fine, she said. One hurdle cleared.

From there it was on to lots of waiting in sterile rooms, getting my height and weight measured, eyes checked, a chest X-ray taken, and finally a brief consultation with a doctor who listened to my heart and lungs.

“How’s it all look?” I asked him. He was quite friendly, spoke excellent English, and even gave me some tips on learning French that I have thought about often since.

“Everything looks fine—today,” he answered.

“Today?” I asked, not sure quite how to take that.

“I do not know what it will look like tomorrow,” he said in an even tone.

Well, I guess that’s true.

While he wasn’t about to make any promises regarding my future health, he was happy to sign off on letting me stay in the country. That’s good enough. Heck, by the time I hit his office I’d already experienced surgery in France, so really, this whole medical screening part was no big deal, just a few hoops to jump through. And as long as he was happy, I was happy.

After seeing him, it was another round of waiting, and then pay the fee. But not with cash or check or card. No, before you even think of showing up for your appointment, you better have gone to the tobacco shop and purchased a few hundred euros worth of special stamps and brought them with you to the ER/DMV… I mean the OFII. Hand them over and the attendant sticks them all over your special document, cancels them, and voila! you can stay. Hurray!

And that’s what happened. Just one trip to the consulate and one trip to the OFII. Yes! I am working this bureaucracy business, baby! And all things considered, that’s true. I sometimes shake my head at things (hello, setting up cellphone service in France!), but we’re managing.

Bit by bureaucracy

Today, however, the bureaucracy got us. Not in some huge earthshaking way, but one that had me shaking my head.

Our girls are going on a class trip that will take them outside of France—which is pretty cool. And which means we had to fill out more paperwork and provide their passports and visas for a school administer to take to la Préfecture de Police for review. We also had to provide another set of passport photos for each of them. (Seems to me if there’s anything they love more than the gas bill, it’s passport photos. You see the photo booths around town everywhere because it seems there’s always something else that needs one these photos: a Navigo pass, a library card, school forms…)

The school administrator who’s coordinating all of this paperwork warned me that the regulations for the photos we need to provide have been getting more stringent. It can’t be the same photo as their current passport. Make sure they’re not even wearing the same top as in their passport photo. (Really? Yes, really.) Make sure their ears aren’t covered by their hair. Anything else? No, that should do it.

So we get the photos and turn them in along with their passports and the signed forms, and we’re all set. Right?

Today I got a call from the administrator at the school. She was so sorry to be calling, so very sorry she had to give me bad news: one of the girls’ photos was rejected. Did it look too much like the passport photo? Was it because her ears weren’t showing enough? No—it was because her hair was covering up too much of her forehead. A new stipulation, she said. We’ll have to go back down to the photo booth and get a new one taken. I could tell she felt so bad to be telling me this, even though on the scale of life’s disasters, this was pretty low.

Well, we’ll be using the métro this weekend, which means we’ll easily find one of those photo booths, so we’ll get another set taken and drop the new photo off at the school on Monday. I’m just glad I’m not the one who has to handle all the paperwork for thirty students and make multiple trips to the prefecture.

The only constant?

To be fair, it’s not just France; bureaucracy is everywhere. We encountered plenty of it dealing with the girls’ schools back in Seattle when we began the process of transitioning them to their new school in Paris—complete with a surly administrator who seemed disappointed that we had turned in the paperwork that was required, and which she seemed sure we couldn’t possibly have gotten on file. Don’t get me started.

Perhaps Dr. McCoy said it best in Star Trek IV: “The bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in the universe.”

Perhaps. But is it worth it? Oh yeah. This whole enterprise (see what I did there?) of moving to Paris for a year began with a more inspirational quote:

“Extraordinary outcomes are not the result of ordinary actions.”

Merideth announced this at dinner when we were first discussing the possibility of moving to Paris and we were ennumerating all that it would take to make such a big dream a reality.

To which Evelyn asked, “Who said that?”

Merideth set down her fork. “I did.”


Becoming French

Today: a guest post from a friend of mine here in Paris. Pringle Franklin is another parent from our girls’ school here and hails from Charleston, S.C. She and her family have been in Paris for a few years now and she’s an inspiration to me to make the most of our time here.


I must be turning into a French woman.

Today at lunch, in a casual cafe in the village of Poissy, my eyes literally filled with tears because my roasted leg of guinea fowl was cooked to perfection. Crispy skin, savory and delicious, with moist tender dark meat underneath–the combination almost made me weep. That, along with the hand-cut french fries that had been twice fried in duck fat, and the skinny haricot vert that tasted of sweet butter yet without being heavy or greasy, forced me to suggest to my husband that I might never agree to leave the terroirs of La France.

“Remember when we went to lunch that day in Germany, in that cute little patio garden on the Mosel?” I said to Sam. “I ordered the baked ham, and it was so tough and fatty that I could hardly eat it. The entire meal was blah, just blah! How lucky we are to be in France. I mean, we eat wonderful food all the time. That is just how it is here!”

poissy dinner

The meal that I cried over.

We were sitting at a table for two at the far end of Le Zinc Cafe, in a small town that lies about 30 minutes southwest of Paris. We had taken the RER train out for an afternoon excursion and had soon found ourselves engaged in that most serious of activities: sniffing out un bon restaurant. The l’ardoise du jour (chalkboard menu) tempted us inside by offering an appealing 3-course menu for 15 euros (you would pay at least double for that in Paris). The cafe had an authentic zinc bar up front, with a few regulars already standing around drinking glasses of wine at 2 p.m. The lunch crowd occupied most of the small tables, a good sign that this undiscovered-by-the-guidebooks spot was popular with the locals. It was the kind of place where a grandmother pushing a baby stroller popped in for an espresso before heading back out to the park. Very authentic.

The staff here did not speak English, allowing us to enjoy the experience of managing the entire situation in French. We prefer it this way but sometimes, in Paris, a helpful waiter will simply roll into English after hearing our accents. Admittedly, this happens less often these days, but I am still relieved when I travel far enough from the big city to interact with French people who are not used to talking with tourists. They always seem wonderfully surprised that we are able to manage it, and the smiles that they give us (and the relief on their faces) makes me feel like I’ve just been handed a gold medal for linguistics. By contrast, in Paris where so many ex-pats are fluent, our brave but awkward French does not impress the shop keepers or waiters. “You could do better,” they seem to suggest with a raised eyebrow.

But in the suburbs or countryside, the reaction is the reverse. When we were skiing in the Alps, the receptionist at the hotel was stunned that I could tell him my room number in French (trois cent cinq). His eyes became large as saucers, and he congratulated me. I accepted his praise like a child getting a gold star from her teacher. After I had relayed the episode to Sam, I added, “Of course that man has no idea that I have been living in Paris for the past year-and-a-half! If he did, he wouldn’t be so impressed. But compared to the tourists who have just flown in from Britain, I must sound pretty darn good!”

While my French remains a work in progress, I find myself acting more like a Parisienne every day. Apparently it is much easier to absorb the French mindset than to master those vowel sounds. Besides shedding joyful tears over my meals, I am shopping at the funky vintage stores and pairing pieces of clothing together that I would never have considered wearing in Charleston. Leggings can mix with a short dress, covered by a swede shirt, tied off with a leather belt. Or a second-hand men’s blue velvet vest can pair with an elegant black velvet skirt, high-heeled boots, and a houndstooth blazer. And hats–all kinds of hats! The options are endless. Today, I saw a woman wearing a fuchsia crushed velvet fedora near our Metro station. “You know,” I told Sam, “in the U.S., that would be considered a pimp hat, but it works here. It actually looked good on her.”

Who is this person that I am becoming? Last night, I was explaining the whole choreography of the bonjours to a newcomer to Paris. We giggled at how the French take this standard greeting so seriously. Yet tonight I found myself insisting on exchanging the scripted words with a new cashier at our Simply Market. This guy was French, in his 20s, and when it was my time to check out, he did not say bonsoir to me. I stood there and waited, and he just looked at me. Without even realizing it, I puffed myself up like a pea hen and said, “Bonsoir,” stretching out the rrrs at the end and rolling it out with a flourish, to emphasize that this ritual of politeness could not be neglected. The cashier just blinked. I waited. He blinked again, but he said nothing. A French lady of about my age was in the line just ahead of me. She smiled at me, giving me an encouraging look that implied: that’s right madame, you show him how it’s done.

It was her approving look that woke me up to my entrenched position. I had automatically begun to feel offended that this kid that not exchanged the prescribed greetings. Sacre bleu! What is the world coming to these days?

I snapped out of it and proceeded to bag my groceries (you have to do this yourself in Paris) and tell the cashier the name of the strange green thing that he needed to ring up (“schoo kyle“/curly kale). As we marched through the necessities of the exchange and completed the purchase, the cashier was perfectly nice and appropriately focused on his job; I could see that he was not a creep. He was not “mal eleve” (poorly raised). He had just missed a beat in the daily dance. And I am attentive to the rhythm of life here that it threw me off.

Now, I will never pick up the cigarette habit or fully understand the French need to go on strike, but I find my cultural assumptions have shifted dramatically. What will I find myself doing next?

The taxi drivers strike back

Yesterday the taxi drivers were on strike (“en grève”). I caught this scene while walking back from the RER (which, along with the métro, wasn’t affected as far as  I could tell).

Apparently, they’re not too happy about Uber. I’ve used both, as well as zip cars and even a private rental–I’ll happily seek out the best deal for our needs.

I didn’t see anything like this picture below today, but you can read about it at The Guardian.


Taxi drivers demonstrate by blocking traffic and burning tyres on a ring road in Paris. Photograph: Aurélien Meunier/Getty


The Death [of a] Star

Writing means learning, because “write what you know” only gets you so far. And so that means research.

Do you know how a supernova works? It’s one possible way a star’s life can come to an end—a violent, catastrophic, glorious end. That much I know. But beyond that…

So over the last few days, doing research has meant all sorts of fun exploring astronomical phenomena having to do with novae and supernovae, including gamma bursts, accretion disks, star clusters, pulsars, binary systems, even the “Chandrasekhar mass limit”—a term I will not be using in my prose. After all, I’m a novelist, not a physicist!

Getting back down to earth, it’s also meant learning about various forms of energy production, as well as flight technology (or the lack thereof in an otherwise modern society—which is turning out to be a bit of a trick to make plausible). And very much back down to earth, I’ve been reading up on epidural hematomas (a kind of traumatic brain injury), since I have a character who—well, that would be a spoiler, wouldn’t it.

A word to the wise: it’s not enough to rely on google and wikipedia, as helpful as they are, especially when it comes to highly technical matters like medicine or astrophysics (which kind of is rocket science). So that means calling in the experts. And that’s where it really gets fun: talking (or at least emailing) with friends who know all sorts of things that I sure don’t about such topics.

And no doubt about it: it’s worth it.

  • I’ve learned more about how cultures develop energy sources from a single paragraph in an email from a friend than I ever did in twenty-two years of formal education. (Granted, I studied music and theology, although I’m pretty sure I got an A in “Rocks for Jocks”—I mean, Geology 101—back in my college days… not that it helped me understand mining or the importance of hydrocarbons in starting an industrial revolution…)
  • I’m getting closer to nailing down the workings of a significant stellar event that occurred prior to the start of the story. This part is taking some doing; just like writing the darn thing means multiple drafts, so I’ve gone through multiple versions of what exactly happened in the past and how it’s all playing out during the time of the story.
  • That business with the epidural hematoma? Thanks to a tip from a friend in the medical world, figuring out how that works means I should be able to sidestep the tired trope of the character who is mortally wounded but manages to talk and talk and talk, conveniently offering up their significant story revelations before expiring (like the coloratura soprano who sings beautifully and delicately—and for a seeming eternity—as she lies dying on the stage).

All this means I’ve been doing more reading and studying and pontificating than actual writing lately. But the research is worth it, right? And yet we can all point to huge scientific errors and implausibilities and plot holes and general sloppiness in books and movies and TV shows that we love—in spite of the fact that TIE Fighters wouldn’t really make that awesome sound as they zoomed by… So is it really worth it? Or should I just pretend there’s sound in space, make that supernova behave however I want it to, and let my dying character hang on as long as the plot requires?

Well, if nothing else, I appreciated reading this from my personal physics answer-man:

“As for your questions, congrats… you’ve already performed more due diligence than JJ Abrams did for either Star Wars or the Trek reboot. Watching the astrophysics in those just makes my teeth hurt…”

So yeah, it’s worth it.

Music on the métro

After yesterday’s account of a mugging on the métro, how about a happier story today. Yes? Okay. Cue the music…

It’s not uncommon to hear musicians on the métro. Both on board and in the tunnels. On the line 6 we get plenty of accordion players (all playing the same five songs), often accompanied by little karaoke rigs blaring out their back-up tracks. For me, the novelty has pretty much worn off. But there are musicians we do enjoy hearing.

Like the soprano sax player who often plays unaccompanied in the evenings at the Charles de Gaulle Étoile station where we catch the 6 to get home. Some good resonance there for his sultry renditions of mellow soul hits from the 70s, like “Killing Me Softly with His Song” (the guy really digs that one–and he plays it well).

Or the young guy with the low-slung guitar on the line 2 late at night when Carolyn and I were coming home from the Simple Minds concert a week after the Paris attacks (yes, at the venue where they recorded their live album back in the day—gotta relive the 80s when I get the chance!).


Usually people barely acknowledge the musicians and try not to make eye-contact when they walk up and down the aisle with their cup held out for spare change. But that guy had the whole car singing along, taking pictures (like me), capturing some video (like the woman in the picture), and even crossing the length of the car to give him money. Are you kidding me? You definitely don’t see that every day.

This morning, two older, vaguely Spanish-looking guys got on (just a guess—there are people from all over the world on the métro, and these guys didn’t look or sound particularly French) and made their little announcement they they were going to entertain us and hoped for some coins. Some of the buskers will say this kind of thing before they get started, others just get on and crank up their accordion without any introduction. Now, they’d gotten on behind me, and at first I didn’t turn around. But then they started playing.

First off, it was something other than the usual: clarinet accompanied by guitar. Nice. And second: they were good. The clarinetist’s fingers must have been smoking, the keys melting, he had so many notes blazing out of that thing. (The last time I heard such a flurry of notes from a woodwind was at a jazz festival in the 80s with Kenny G, who never plays five notes when he can play a hundred-and-five.) But more than that—it was tasteful. Not just an athletic display of virtuosity, it was musical. And the guitarist was keeping up with his friend, strumming away on his Glen Hansard-esque, almost-worn-through-the-soundboard classical guitar.

When the clarinetist came by with his paper cup, I gladly fished through my pocket for some change for these guys who’d definitely livened up the quiet ride to the Opéra stop.

Yesterday I saw a mugging on the métro. Thankfully, what I saw today is much more common. Granted, it’s usually the accordion guys, not Spanish Kenny G trading his sax for a clarinet, but that’s okay.

Mugging on the métro

Ten seconds. Ten seconds—if even that—and the moment was over, the only thing left to do was head home.

FullSizeRenderI had just caught the métro at the Dupleix station in the fifteenth arrondissement. Blue skies, bright sun, but only a few degrees above freezing. It was 3:40 in the afternoon and I only had to go two stops on line 6.

I’d spent the last hour or so at a little bakery where you can get a coffee without paying extra to sit at a table. Nice! (But really, what’s wrong with that place—don’t they know they can charge at least an extra euro for that?) Sixty minutes of organizing a whole load of documents I’ve created over the last year full of backstory material, character notes, and world-building ideas. I’m a little over a month into working through the second draft of my novel, and when you’re inventing a fictional world from scratch, there’s no shortage of things to keep track of—technology, architecture, history, religion, even just what kind of things people eat for dinner… and on and on and on. It had been a good session but I was ready to shift gears. I was even thinking it might be good to write another blog post. You know, set the sprawling multi-year project aside for a bit and write something fun.

So: laptop packed up, scarf wrapped tight, baguette for tonight’s dinner in hand, on the way to the Passy stop. Throughout most of Paris the metro runs underground, but this stretch is elevated above the street and affords some nice views, even crossing over the Seine just southwest of the Eiffel Tower. It was a typically quiet ride. People almost never talk much on the métro; when I do catch snippets of conversations it’s as likely to be among tourists as not.

I found a place in the front of the car where the folding seats are as well as a pair of vertical poles to hold on to. It wasn’t particularly crowded. I easily could have found a seat, but for such a short trip I didn’t bother, so I was leaning against the front wall of the car. Sitting on one of the folding seats was a woman with a mane of curly hair spilling over her scarf, tapping away on her phone. Texting, or surfing the internet, I didn’t notice, but whatever it was, she was very intent. Across from her, a youngish guy slumped in his seat, hardly anything distinguishable about him under his big winter coat. A middle-aged man with thinning black hair got on and I stepped back to give him some room. The doors closed and we sped off to the next stop: Bir-Hakeim, the one closest to the Tower.

We got to the station and the doors opened. I was facing the open doors, not particularly focusing on anything as a few people stepped into the car. And then: a blur of movement burst into my peripheral vision and I spun my head to see the young man in the big coat rushing the woman and then he instantly tore away and lunged out doors and onto the platform. Immediately she was yelling. But it wasn’t a scream; he hadn’t hurt her. It was shock, it was alarm—it was anger. And then I realized what I’d seen: he’d snatched her phone right out of her hands and was running away with it.

Those who had gotten into the car poured right back out and a moment later at least three people had the thief pinned against the wall of the platform. The woman got right into the fray and ripped her phone back out of his hands, all the time berating him in a steady stream of loud, angry French.

It’s still hard for me to understand spoken French; Parisians in particular are known for speaking so quickly that comprehension can be a challenge for novices like me. So I didn’t catch a word of the torrent of outrage that she was blasting the young man with. But her tone of voice, her body language? That I understood.

Ten seconds: that’s all it took from the time he grabbed the phone out of her hand to the time she tore it from his. I was still on the métro, still stunned by what I’d just seen. I looked down and noticed a small shopping bag on the floor where she’d been sitting. It appeared to be a few frozen meals. I picked it up and joined the circle surrounding the would-be thief. One of the men holding him was dialing on his phone, calling the police, I assumed. The woman was still venting her anger. When she took a breath I held up the bag to her. “Excusez-moi…” She took the bag, turned back to the young man and started in again. I watched for another moment and then got back on the métro.

The buzzer sounded, the doors closed, and we pulled out. The Seine was soon passing beneath us, the Eiffel Tower standing starkly against a cloudless sky. I got off at the next stop and walked the few blocks home.

As I made my way, it occurred to me: if the thief had just timed his crime better he might have gotten away with it. If he had grabbed the woman’s phone when the buzzer sounded, he could have dashed through the closing doors and been running down the platform before people knew what had happened. For her sake, I’m glad he hadn’t thought of that.

I can still picture the look on his face as he stood on the platform, held by the Good Samaritans. He didn’t look like a hardened criminal. He didn’t look like anyone who would even make me nervous or make me check that my wallet was still in my pocket. He looked like a kid who had just gotten a bad grade on a test or who had been scolded for not making his bed. It was hard for me to tell how old he was. Sixteen? Twenty? Should he have been in school? Did he have a bed? Had he done this kind of thing before? He didn’t look homeless, but whatever his situation, I’m sure I wouldn’t want to trade places with him. What would happen to him now? I have no idea.

It’s a bit ironic: this morning I was perusing a forum where people were discussing an area in the outskirts of Paris known for pickpockets, where you probably don’t want to go alone at night, and where you need to have your wits about you at any time. But there’s a great cathedral there, so it’s on my list. I was thinking of going out there today, but decided to save it for another time.

Instead I stayed close to home, on familiar turf. And witnessed something I’d never seen before. Bad things can happen anywhere, anytime. Paris learned that lesson last year. I was reminded of it again today.

Writing with Rapunzel

What to do with that unused drawbridge tower? How about turn it into a workspace, install a writer in there, throw some “1% for Arts” $$$ at it and see what comes of it.


Hey–that’s not Paris! That’s right, it’s the Fremont Bridge in Seattle. I took this photo on a lovely day in May last year when I spent an afternoon writing along the Ship Canal.

That’s  exactly what my hometown of Seattle is doing with the Fremont Bridge writer in residence program this coming summer. Getting to write in the tower across the bridge deck from neon Rapunzel…how cool is that! The catch? You need to be a published writer and live in or within 100 miles of Seattle. I haven’t been published and I’m currently a few thousands miles away, otherwise I’d be all over this. Want the details? Say no more and click here.

The Fremont Bridge has four control towers, but in this day and age, only the southeast one is used to actually operate the bridge, while the northwest tower now features Rapunzel and the northeast one has been outfitted as a writer’s studio with 360 degree views. (Not sure what’s going on in the mysterious final tower. Maybe the writer who gets this residency will find out.)

This kind of program has been run at least once before. In 2009, Kristen Ramirez was the artist-in-residence and created a temporary sound installation that you can read about here. I’ve heard of being a volunteer lighthouse keeper, but this is the first I’ve ever heard of ordinary mortals getting to work out of a bridge control tower. I wonder if they’ll ever let the lucky writer get to raise and lower the bridge… I mean, what could possibly go wrong…?

(I found about this whole deal here.)

If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck…

Surely you’ve done it: come home from the store and discovered you hadn’t bought what you’d thought you’d bought. Diet Coke instead of regular. The wrong kind of cream cheese. The wrong size light bulbs. So have I… but never like this.


Today I picked up a chicken at the grocery store to roast for dinner. We’ve had mixed success with chickens here in Paris. The best one was from the little grocery store without much selection. The toughest, least flavorful one was sadly a spendy bird from the butcher. And none of them have been quite the same as what I’m used to at home. So when the one I picked up today seemed a touch narrow, the wings a bit more prominent, the flap of neck skin longer, I took note, but chalked it up to the fact I still don’t know my French chickens very well. I halved a mandarine orange and stuck it in the bird, popped it in the oven along with some quartered potatoes, sliced onions, carrots and garlic and roasted that thing.

Turns out it’s not just my chickens I don’t know very well. I started to carve the bird, taking off the first leg, the wing, and then moving onto the first side of the breast. As soon as I sliced into it, I knew: that’s no chicken… that’s dark meat!

But what was it? A small goose? A duck? But how could it be? I know the word for duck, it’s canard, and I knew I hadn’t seen that when I bought it. I dug the plastic wrapping the bird had come in out of the trash. In large, fancy script was emblazoned the word Canette. I’d taken that to be the brand name or something. Turns out it means duckling!

Oh well! I finished carving and served up. I’d never roasted a duck before, but I knew it wasn’t just like roasting a chicken. The girls were good sports, but none of us were exactly crazy about how it had turned out. Mind you, not that it was inedible or anything. Just a bit tougher than what we were hoping for.

Maybe I’ll buy one on purpose sometime and do it up proper, taking advantage of all that duck fat and getting the skin nice and crispy. Next time. Or maybe next time I’ll make sure I’m actually buying a chicken.

Trouble in paradise

Life in Paris isn’t all days of wine and roses. Even here, some days are diamond, some days are stone; some days are pain au chocolat, some days are a pain in the… well, you know. So here we go: some of the challenges of living among the French.

Sarcasm alert: this post is full of it.


Code? What code?

To get into your typical residential building in Paris you need a door code. Type in the code, press the button, and voilà, you’re in. Plenty of these buildings have doctors or lawyers or other professionals on the ground floor. Back in September when I needed to consult with my surgeon, I found the building, found the door, but I didn’t have the code! What to do? So I dug out my phone and called the receptionist (who barely spoke English) and explained I didn’t know the code to get in. She said something like “No code.” Right, exactly—I don’t have the code. Finally she came out and let me in. Come to discover all I had to do was press the button—without a code—and the door would open.

Danger: minefields everywhere

Ah Paris, city of culture, city of art, city of taste and refinement… city of dog-poop-on-sidewalks-all-over-town-and-especially-wherever-you-happen-to-be-walking. On the street around the corner from our apartment there is actually a sign that instructs the fine citizens of Paris to pick up after their pet. True story: I never even noticed that particular sign until the day I was walking by just as a woman stepped in a big pile of dog poop right in front of the unheeded sign. So far I’ve avoided all those nasty little land-mines. Not that everyone in our family can say as much…

Things heat up

Our rather small oven built by NEFF (company slogan: That’s not a bug, it’s a feature!) can overheat simply by running the broiler for a while. Or using it to, you know, roast something at a completely normal temperature. At which point the sensors inside its genius computer brain issue an Emergency Alert and increase the Oven Security Level to Defcon 1 (“Core Breach Imminent”) and engage Complete Oven Lockdown. Seriously—it locks the oven door closed and will not function! It has even gone into lockdown mode after we’re done cooking and the thing is turned off. This is more than mildly annoying, especially when I can’t get it to release the lockdown for more than a day. And even more super-especially-annoying when there is hot, tasty food inside the oven that I want to serve to guests!

Thanks to some googling—and no thanks to the French manual—I have learned the proper (non-intuitive) reset sequence to input, thus enabling us to get the dumb door open and rescue our food. Even so, we now leave the oven door open after use until it has completely for sure, no-doubt-about-it cooled down. Be assured: I will absolutely positively never ever voluntarily purchase an oven built by NEFF.

Cool it now

It got pretty cold in the middle of October. Not Montana cold by any stretch, but unseasonably cold for Paris—cold enough that it might be nice to crank up the heat in the house for the sake of, oh I don’t know, sleeping without shivering. So I figured out how to say “the heat isn’t working” in French and went down to see if I could get any help from the guardian in our building. She understood me, smiled (she’s very friendly) and mimed shivering, rubbing her arms with her hands. Then she said a whole string of things I didn’t understand, got out a calendar and pointed to a date later in the month. That I understood.

Turns out our apartment is one of those old ones that has centralized heat—heat for the whole building that is turned on on a set date regardless of what the weather is like, arctic freeze or Indian summer. And turns out this is fairly common. That’s why there’s a little space heater on wheels in the corner of the living room. So for about ten days we’d wheel that thing around to wherever we were in order to take the edge off the chill until the building heat came on later in the month. At which point, right on cue, the weather warmed right back up.

Where the streets have no name

I had hoped in our year of living here I would never get behind the wheel of a car (I did a whole post on this). Well, I managed to make it a little more than a month before we rented a car from a local so we could get out to one of the suburbs instead of spending hours on the train.

At least the French drive on the right, but that’s about all I’ve got going for me. The first time I drove, negotiating the narrow streets, trying to see the tiny street signs hidden on the sides of buildings, dodging other drivers, and following Siri’s directions (in her robotic, mangled French pronunciation that makes me sound like a native speaker) was enough to get my heart beating right out of my chest.

But we made it—and I lived to drive again—and for the most part minus the stress. After Christmas we even rented a zipcar on a Sunday morning for a joyride around town to take in the sights while most Parisians were still sleeping (you don’t have to get up very early to do this). The streets were so empty, I even took a loop around the normally manic Arc de Triomphe. Whoo-hoo!

I’ve got this figured out, I know exactly what I’m doing—or not

I’m getting lots of things figured out in Paris, more and more all the time. But now and again I get humbled.

So there I am: confidently striding off the métro, down the platform, up the stairs, and onto the connecting train—and not realizing until it pulls into the next station that I’m going the wrong direction.

Or getting a good deal on a couple of boxes of coffee pods for our K-cup coffee maker (something I’d never used before moving to Paris) only to later discover that they’re for a completely different style of coffee maker. I didn’t know there was another style.

Or ordering a baguette sandwich at the bakery (in French, right after French class) and being handed two sandwiches—and not because it was buy-one-get-one-free day. Yeah, apparently I didn’t say what I thought I said.

Can you hear me now?

We don’t have a local bank account here since we’re short-timers. Meaning I can’t get an ongoing phone service plan for our phones. So every month I need to buy recharge slips for each of us at the tabac to get another month of service. Service that includes 600 megabytes of data for the month. Enough data to check my email and open four-and-half web pages before it’s exhausted. Okay, it’s not that bad, but I have to ration my cellular data usage like a miser if I don’t want to find myself wandering Paris at the end of the month unable to load the map on my phone. (No, I haven’t carried a paper map anywhere in months.) In some ways this is a good thing. No mindlessly scrolling Facebook while waiting for the train. No looking up some bit of trivia or watching Studio C videos just to kill time (although I love Studio C). It means being intentional about using the internet when I’m out and about. And that’s actually not so bad. There’s a lot more I could say about the frustrations of the recharge plans—like they’re always changing the deals, the rates are exorbitant, certain plans seem to expire mysteriously, and the Orange phone company website is cryptic… okay, I’ll stop now.

Hung out to dry

Our combination washer/dryer is another fine product brought to you by the people at NEFF. Another product I will never ever willingly buy. Who invented this Franken-combo? Sure, it washes clothes—to be precise, the tiny thing has a capacity of exactly two shirts, three socks and a washcloth—and then you have to switch if over to the dry function (sechage), where upon it will shake, rattle, and roll for a couple of hours, at which point you will have a pile (a very small pile) of hot, damp clothes that are now thoroughly wrinkled. We’re having to iron things we’ve never even thought of ironing before. What’s more, it’s not like anything comes out really dry. Sheets have to be hung over chairs for another few hours before you can make up a non-damp bed.

Now wait, you say—those things that get so wrinkled, can’t you pull them out early? You know, before the wrinkles set in? What an idea! Alas, no. This is another NEFF product, remember? Which means that once the door is closed and the cycle (no matter what cycle) has begun, it is in LOCKDOWN, baby. Don’t even think of getting your precious pants out until it is good and ready—and they’re good and wrinkled.

Final disclaimer:

It’s not that I’m not complaining; living in Paris continues to be a fantastic experience. The dog poop I’ve accepted, the appliances I’m tolerating, and the continual phone service recharging—well, maybe I am complaining just a little bit…

Come to think of it, I think I need a crêpe.