The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Friday, April 28, 2006

I love red tape

Apologies for the lack of content lately. I wrote something the other day but when I read back over it, it was so whiny and self-indulgent that I deleted it. Maybe I'll try the topic again later from another angle.

Also, more importantly, we've been trying to get an apartment nailed down, and it's not easy. I'll post some details about the place we have in mind once it looks like we're actually going to get it...I don't want to jinx anything, or have to write a post that reads, "Remember that cool place I told you about? Well, we're not getting it. Here's the dump we'll be living in instead."

In France, the law makes it very very difficult for a landlord to evict a tenant. For example, it's illegal to evict someone during the winter months. Non-payment has to go on for 6 months before it's grounds for eviction. So landlords are very careful to make sure that the person they rent to is likely to keep on paying. To give you some idea of what you need to rent an apartment, here's the list of required documents the realty agency gave me. Translation errors are mine.

An original and 3 copies of each of the following:
  • Livret de famille (a French ID card we don't have...probably not a problem)
  • Marriage certificate
  • Identity card and/or passport with picture obscured (I suppose to prevent discrimination...but wouldn't our names give it away if we were of an unwelcome ethnic group?)
  • Attestation from your employer indicating your hire date, your length of work contract, and annual salary
  • Three most recent pay stubs (I only have one so far)
  • Three most recent receipts from your current landlord OR attestation of property ownership from your mayor's office OR proof of real estate taxes paid
  • Address and phone number of former landlord
  • Notarized statement of current bank account from your bank, including address and phone number
  • Most recent utility bill in your name.

Got that all handy? Great! Now hustle on down to the real estate office to make sure you beat everybody else there. And you'll need your checkbook, too, because you'll need to pay:

  • The first month's rent (say, €1500)
  • Two times the first month's rent as a security deposit (another €3000)
  • An administration fee to be paid to the realty agency (€1250 or so)

But make sure you leave a little something in the ol' bank account, because you're going to need to buy kitchen cabinets, a fridge, a stove, a dishwasher, a washer and dryer, some light fixtures, some armoires to hang your clothes in, etc...

Here's a gratuitous picture of a dining room and living room in one of the places we considered but had to bump down the list because of a lot of traffic noise from the Boulevard Roosevelt, two floors directly below.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

It's Good to Be a Dip

(now with 40% less whining)

There was this old Eddie Murphy bit on Saturday Night Live (hmmm...two SNL refs recently...I guess I did spend a lot of Saturday nights in the 80's at home in front of the TV) where Eddie puts on white makeup and a fake moustache to go undercover as a white man--and finds that life is very different with his newfound status : free newspapers from the newsstand, a city bus that turns into a mobile party when the last black passenger steps off, a free loan from a white bank manager.

That's me and my new, official, and wholly unearned Diplomat status (henceforth "Dip"). For example, one of the perks of being a Dip is that I qualify for a tax-free car. That is, besides the get-out-of-jail-free card represented by a green license tag, I can buy a car without the 25% tax that French people normally have to pay on top of the purchase price. Plus, a lot of European car manufacturers feel that having a bunch of their cars on the road with diplomatic tags makes for good advertising, so they offer additional 10-15% discounts to Dips, along with some other perks like free shipment back to one's home country. Which is nice. But why do they give breaks to the people who are most likely to not need them? And heck, I don't even need a car here.

Another example: Something like six times a year, I'll have the opportunity to purchase up to 20 bottles of duty-free booze at ridiculously low prices. I filled out my first order sheet last week (one doesn't pass up Bombay Sapphire at $8 a bottle). Now that I've shown a willingness to pay usurious amounts for small-batch bourbon (see below), do I even need this kind of a break?

It goes on...special rates on subscriptions to the International Herald-Tribune. Invitations to hob-nob with the elite at the city hall, via the American Club. We blew off an invitation to an Easter Egg Hunt at an honest-to-god chateau, hosted by an honest-to-god Count and Countess (actually, we couldn't get a rental car on short notice on a holiday...guess that Benz woulda come in handy). What do you even say to a Count? "So, keeping the serfs in line?" "Does a Count beat a Marquis, or do you have to be an Earl?" "What're Ernie and Bert really like?"

Hell, it's not even like I'm an ambassador or something. Under the fake moustache and white make-up, it's just ol' whatsisname, middle-class suburban kid from North Carolina. I hope they don't find me out.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

A Visit to a French Gynecologist

OK, it sounds like a setup to a dirty joke, but it's true: we went to the "English-speaking" OB-gyn yesterday. French doctors' offices are in plain old apartment buildings, in plain old converted apartments. Ring the buzzer, go past the mailboxes, first apartment on the left, open the door, and there are five pregnant Frenchwomen sitting around a former living room not reading golf magazines. Check in with the receptionist (in the former kitchen) and go back to the living room, er, waiting room.

Eventually the docteur emerges from the back bedroom, er, examination room. I don't recognize him at first as the OB because he's wearing black jeans and a white shirt unbuttoned to the sternum, and he's got a suntan that suggests he spends a lot of time lounging poolside at St. Tropez in a black Speedo. He's accompanying a pregnant woman, to whom he gives a bisou-bisou on both cheeks and a farewell pat on the ass. (I may have imagined that last part.)

He invites us back into the office, where we quickly establish that his English is only about as good as my French--we can communicate, but there's a lot of back and forth as I translate half of everything to V. He flips through V's records and takes a few notes as he gets down the basics of our case.

There is a large glass ashtray on the desk with two butts stobbed out in it. And an open pack of Marlies, helpfully printed with the words Fumer Tue ("smoking kills").

He takes V. back to the examination room, and I am pointedly invited to stay where I am ("Ce n'est pas comme aux Etas-Unis") so Boog and I race Matchbox cars on the floor. We're eventually called in for the ultrasound, where Boog peers at the screen trying to make sense of the patterns. The baby's fine and looks healthy.

The OB isn't such a bad guy, really, charming in a Eurotrashy way, a la Christopher Walken as "The Continental" on Saturday Night Live. (V. later expresses her doubts about being able to communicate with him when the time comes, though she does note that he understood the word "pain".) He's heard of Caroline du Nord and asks if I've ever played Pinehurst.

We leave with a fistful of scripts for urine test sticks, prenatal vitamins, pain relievers, and so forth. Next we will brave the pharmacie, sure to be another jarring example of culture shock.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Two Pictures I Actually Took

Slowly rejoining the electronic age...anyway, here are two small glimpses of what life actually looks like for me (rather than Google Image Searches).

The first one is the small courtyard of our townhouse, a pleasant place to sit when the weather is nice. Which it hasn't been. The wall is at least 8 feet high all around, so it's very secluded and we can even let kitty outside without fear that he'll find a way over.

The other is the southern end of Parc Tete d'Or, looking from a playground near the carousel across the deer park toward the Blvd des Belges and the 6th--a neighborhood where we've been concentrating our apartment-hunting. The park is Boog's favorite place, unless you consider the Metro to be a place. By the way, if you're ever on the Lyon metro with kids, be sure that on the D line you ride in the very first car (or the last). Since the D is automated, there's no driver, just a big bay window at the front of the car. Whoosh! And you're Han Solo making the jump to hyperspace.

Things the French Don't Do, Vol.1

(likely to be a continuing series)

Unlike in the US, you can buy liquor pretty much anywhere--corner stores, supermarkets, whatever. Our neighborhood Casino store has a whole wall of booze. Great, I said, show me to the bourbon. But a closer look shows that a lot of this is Frenchy stuff like pastis, creme de cassis, calvados, and what have you. There's a fair bit of Scotch (and pretty cheap, too) but the only American whiskey is Jack Daniel's, plus something called Old Virginia in a plastic bottle with a cheesy label with fake gold medals printed on it. Well, I can live with some JD, I sez, and go to grab some...holy crap, it's 25 euros! Geez, that's more than Glenfiddich!

Thus began my quest for bourbon. I scoured every grocery store in the 6th and the 8th, stood among the teeming millions at Carrefour, left nose smudges on the window glass of every wine shop in the Presqu'ile. Nothing. Jack black's a little cheaper at Carrefour...duly noted. Then, on a tip from a colleague, I sought out an address near Place des Terreaux. Wonder of wonders, there it was: The Whisky Lodge. A whole store of nothing but rank after rank of whiskey bottles in tastefully lit glass cabinets, arranged by place of origin: Highland single-malts, Lowland single-malts, Speyside...Kentucky! Overeager, I swung open the cabinet front...and an alarm went off. A mildly irritated Frenchman (not Scotsman, as I would have guessed) appeared and eased the fifth of Blanton's from my hand. Desolee, I mumbled, red-faced.

The clerk ringing up my purchase asked, "C'est un cadeau?" wanting to know if I wanted it gift-wrapped. Non, c'est pour moi. Tout pour moi. I guarded it carefully on the Metro on the way home.

It cost 47 Euros.

Things The French Don't Do, Continued:
The To-go Cup.
In France, one does not eat or drink while walking or driving or even standing, except at the bar. Nibbling at a pain au chocolat on the way to the Metro is like to elicit a sarcastic "bon appetit" from passersby. Most French cars don't have cupholders. It's said to be reflective of the French attitude toward food and by extension, life: some things are meant to be savored and enjoyed, rather than merely inserted and excreted.

Which is all well and good; I'm certainly in favor of the two-hour lunch break that is standard at my office. But some days I just want to brew up a batch of coffee at home, take some with me to work, and sip it while I read my e-mail. My colleagues don't understand. "But there is a coffee shop by the cafeteria. Madame makes superb cafe-au-lait-grandes, just as you Americans like. And the view there on the 12th floor is superb." Meh. I don't want to sit and make small talk with people I barely know, when I know I have work I should be doing, while fearing the fresh horrors manifesting in my Inbox...especially at 2 Euros a throw. I miss my go-cup.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

"L'oubliez, Jake...c'est Chinatown."

Lyon's Chinatown, such as it is, is about 6 square blocks tucked in between metro Guillotiere and the quais of the Rhone in the 3rd. As the lady from the Canton House restaurant (who we bumped into on Rue Emile Zola coming back from the boulangerie...Villeurbanne felt very small-town there for a moment) told us, "Get off the tram at Guillotiere and look for red lanterns."

Vietnamese noodle shops!
Chinese grocery stores!
Tailors! Udon! Chocolate Pocky!
Sriracha rooster sauce!
O frabjous day in the dirty 3rd!

Most of the weekend, though, was spent in looking at apartments. The ones we have seen have been in old buildings and new, expensive and cheap...but they seem to have commonalities. First there is a tiny elevator (we asked not to look at buildings without elevators) marked "capacity 3 persons". There is an apartment door with doorknob in the center, sealed by a devilish system of locks, deadbolts, bear traps, and magic words. The unflappable Henri, the agency's "social coordinator" (I imagined Julie from "Love Boat", but he's more like a Inspector Closeau character, with tan raincoat and smelling genially of pipe tobacco...did I mention the tiny elevators?), tries every one of a huge ring of keys in various combinations until "... et la voila!" There is always an entrance hall, and mostly parquet floors, and metal shutters, and a toilet jammed into a former coat closet (hence WC, I guess) . Kitchens in apartments here are rented unequipped, and I mean that literally. There's no fridge, of course, and no dishwasher, but no range, no stove, no cabinets or counters--sometimes just a bare sink sticking out of a wall in a tiled but otherwise empty room. It makes it difficult to picture onself whipping up a batch of chevre chaud (literally, "hot goat") in such a place.

We did see one place we both immediately liked. It's a 3BR flat in an older building (c. 1855) on Cours Vitton, one of the main streets through the 6th and quite close to the Parc Tete d'Or. The metro entrance is a few steps from the building's front door, and there's a movie theater, a chocolatier, and a boulangerie on the same block (see pic). But it was the interior that we really liked, in classic French style with high ceilings, chair railings and crown mouldings, wrought-iron fixtures...exactly the kind of place you see in a Vanity Fair spread about this respected American actress or that aging British rock star taking a break from film/recording in Paris, with an Annie Leibowitz photo of said actress/rocker draped across a chocolate leather fainting-couch. We looked at each other with a look that said we were already planning on where to put the fainting-couch. There are problems, though: no parking on-site for one, and the parquet floors really need refinishing; it would be expensive to heat, and most windows face north. But it's the best we've seen so far, and it gives us hope. Later this week we'll be seeing something in a very ritzy neighborhood, above a Rolex dealer and across the street from Hermes and Yves Saint-Laurent. It'll probably be either tiny or run-down, given how expensive real estate in that neighborhood must be.

Oh yes, and there was another day of strikes here yesterday, but I was knocked out with a migraine and missed it completely. I called the boss and reassured him I wasn't on strike, merely sick. "There's no traffic on the streets," he said, "and the Metro is running on time. Very unusual for France!" He's French so he can say stuff like that.