More phone fun

We’re back in the USA, getting settled, and figuring out how to live here again. So far it’s been smooth enough. I pretty much remember how to find my way around in the car, although I keep looking for street signs and stoplights in the wrong places. And I’ve enjoyed drinking big American coffees and enjoying salsa that has an actual kick. Although our first baguette, from our favorite bakery here, did not measure up to what we’d grown accustomed to in Paris. No surprise there.

One of the biggest challenges when we went to France was dealing with the business of everyday life in a foreign language. Like dealing with unfamiliar appliances, a landlord that didn’t speak much English, going to the doctor, and figuring out phone service.

Oh yeah, phones–I thought getting phone service set up in France was hard. Well, let me say, if I’d had to go through there what I just went through here… I’d have been stuck with smoke signals.

It all started out so easily this morning: stop in at the Verizon store. Speak English with the nice guy working there. Explain our situation: we need to get two phones added to our account for our girls. We already owned the phones–they had been using them in France–now we just need to get new Verizon SIM cards and get them added to our account.

First phone? No problem. Ah, this is so much easier than waiting in line forever at the Orange store in Paris and muddling through the process in minimal French!

Then the next phone. Hmm. It’s taking longer. The SIM card is in, the phone recognizes it. But there’s a problem. The phone has been flagged on the lost/stolen list! What?

Merideth had bought the phone from one of those place that repairs cell phones and sells refurbished ones. She bought it last fall in Seattle (while the rest of us were in France) after it became clear that one of the girls’ phones was pretty well worthless. We’d gotten it working with some difficulty (yeah, here’s another link to that bizarre experience), but ultimately it got working just fine.

The Verizon guy tried his best, talking to multiple people up the food chain, but nothing could be done; I needed to go to the place we bought it from and solve the issue there. Thankfully, it was only a few blocks away. And finally, after three separate trips there, another trip to a Verizon store and about an hour on the phone with Verizon customer service, we got it handled. Oh, and it also meant we did have to trade the phone in to the store for a new one.

As far as we can tell, the phone must have been reported lost or stolen after we bought it and got it set up in France. Crazy. And getting it all handled definitely took more time than I would have ever guessed–but at least it’s working. And at least I didn’t have to deal with this in French!


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.

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.

« Très bizarre »

Getting a prepaid SIM card is one of the more ridiculously cumbersome processes in France. It means going into a shop (usually with a long line), wading through French paperwork, presenting your passport to be photocopied, and finally getting your service activated. Going in for surgery in France is only slightly more difficult (and I would know).

It probably doesn’t help my outlook on things that a friend told me recently that when he was in the UK, he got a SIM card from a vending machine and was good to go. Well, this is France, not the island of the Queen.

Last week I stopped into a Tabac to purchase another month of service for the girls’ phones. You get a big long receipt printed out, but all that really matters is the fourteen digit code. Call the special number, wait for the automated French voice to stop talking (“wait for the end of… of… the speech,” the French salesman at the Tabac told me), press “2” and then enter the code.

The first time I did this I left the shop before trying to enter the code and went home, only to realize I couldn’t understand the French “speech” and didn’t know what selection to choose. Thankfully, the concierge’s daughter was able to help me (the concierge is kind of like a building manager who lives on the ground floor). The next time, I had the man at the Tabac do it for me and show me how to do it the next time.

So it’s the next time and I’m feeling confident. I’ve got two fourteen digit codes and I know what buttons to press. I get home and Carolyn’s phone accepts the code without any trouble. Time for Evelyn’s phone. I call the special number, but the announcement I get is definitely not the same. I can’t understand much of what’s being said, but it’s clear it’s not giving me any options. The Orange phone company jingle plays and then it hangs up on me. I check her text messages; sure enough, there’s one from Orange that says something to the effect that we need to go back to the shop (le magasin) and present identification to get the service reestablished.

Okay. So I make sure I have a book to read (Dracula, no less!) and go to the shop. Mercifully, the line is short and I’m able to get help in under fifteen minutes.


The Orange shop near our apartment.

Aside–This is how it goes at Orange: someone greets you, finds out what you need, takes your name, and then tells you to wait. This person then spends the rest of their time tidying the shop (or just gazing around with a slight, Mona Lisa smile) but never actually helps any of the customers.

The representative who assists me calls up the account for Evelyn’s phone on his computer terminal. Turns out there’s no personal identification or passport information associated with it. The only thing I can think of is that when I first got the SIM cards for the girls’ phones, all the information was entered into Carolyn’s account but not Evelyn’s. No problem. He enters all the info, takes a picture of my passport with his phone and emails it off to whomever has the power to make Evelyn’s service active. He tells me it might take an hour or two for it to be ready to accept the recharge code I’ve purchased. Fine. I head off to meet a friend and later that night I try calling the recharge number with my code in hand. But no such luck; I get the same announcement as before with the bouncy Orange jingle. Could it be that things are just taking longer than the man at the shop expected? Let’s hope for that. But in the morning it’s the same thing. There’s nothing for it; I have to go back to le magasin.

As I’m waiting, the man who helped me the day before comes into work. And when my name is called he’s the one available to see me. And he remembers me. This is all quite fortuitous! I show him the phone and my receipt with the recharge number. He tries it and gets the same recording. He checks the account—sure enough, it’s locked pending my personal information getting validated. He gets on the phone and spends time navigating automated menus in order to get to the powers-that-be who can unlock the account. The call is dropped. He starts over. After some time he looks at me and asks if I just want a brand new SIM card. It means Evelyn will get a different phone number, but it will be no charge and it will work immediately.

Oui, let’s do that!

He hangs up and disappears to the backroom to get the new SIM card. When he returns, he pops it in the phone, but the phone refuses to recognize it. Is the phone unlocked? Oui, I say, it worked fine when I got the original SIM card. Hmm. He goes to the back room and reappears with another new SIM card. He pops it in. Same result—the phone won’t recognize it. He gives me a look. Surely there must be something wrong with the phone. Wonderful. Evelyn’s phone is my old iPhone; the battery doesn’t last as long as it used to and the physical on/off button is sticky. I’m starting to think that we’re going to have to get her a new phone when the man pops the second unrecognized SIM card into his own cell phone. His phone won’t recognize it either. He tries the first unrecognized SIM card in his phone; same result. Two brand new, non-working SIM cards! “Très bizarre!” he says.

Finally, the third time is a charm. He gets a third SIM card and it works, accepting the recharge code. He shakes his head and actually looks apologetic (a rare sight in this country where it’s a privilege for the customer to even enter the shop). “Désolé” (Sorry), he says. “Très bizarre.

I pack up all the new paperwork (along with Dracula) and head out of the store, hoping I won’t have to be back anytime soon. Evelyn’s phone is working again–at least for one more month…