A French Power Bill is the Ultimate Identity Document

Tracy and I have never been so excited to receive a bill in our lives; yet we were smiling like new parents when we checked the mail and found our first electricity bill from EDF (Électricité de France). Also like a new parent, we photographed it, scanned it, and placed it carefully back in its envelope for  safe keeping.

To quote from “7 Things You Can’t Understand If You’re Not French,” an article by Kate Robinson.

“Your electrical bill is the most important document you own.”

Ah, the justificatif de domicile. Proof of residence is perhaps the most sought-after document in your personal arsenal of administrative papers. If you want to get your driver’s license, renew your passport, open a savings account (yes, at the same bank where you’ve had a checking account for the last two years) or do anything else involving a visit to a guichet (service counter like DMV), you’ll need to prove where you live. No, the address on the back of your state-issued ID card doesn’t cut it. You’ll need to print or dig out an electrical bill less than three months old.”

and from “You Know You’ve Gone Full-French When . . . ” by Rebeca Planter.

“You keep a relatively recent electric bill in your purse; never know when you’ll need to prove your address… again.”

Our previous rental contracts in France included the cost of utilities, so we never had to obtain an electricity, gas, or water account. That has frequently created a bureaucratic issue for us as to how to establish our physical address.  Just like visiting the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) back in the US, French government agencies have specific lists of approved documents they will accept as documentation.

Tracy and I have managed over the last few years in France without a utility bill to serve as our  justificatif de domicile (proof of physical address) by using alternative methods to establish our physical address like:  1.) having the bank send a registered letter to our apartment and returning it to the bank also by registered mail, 2.) producing a rental contract with a stack of signed rent receipts (having our own Quittance de Loyer book [rental receipt book] has repeatedly been a lifesaver for us), 3.) obtaining an “attestation sur l’honneur” (an affidavit) of occupation from our landlord, and 4.) obtaining from the Mairie (town hall) a memorandum stating we were residents of that town and listing our physical address.

Now, just in time for our application process for our third annual renewal of our Carte de Séjour (our Residency Permits, what in the US would be our “Green Cards”), we now possess the “Holy Grail” of French identity documents, an electricity bill.

EDF Electric Bill
EDF Electric Bill

 

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Getting Internet Service in France

With moving to new unfurnished apartment (A Change of Address) in Argelès-sur-Mer, Tracy and I were faced with getting broadband internet service, something that had always been included as part of our previous furnished apartment rentals.  We very much rely on the internet for our communication and entertainment.

There are numerous options for internet service in France:  AliceBouygues TelecomFree, Orange, SFR, and additional smaller providers. Since we lack the language skills to really comparison shop well, we took the easy path by selecting Orange (formerly known as France Télécom), the largest national brand who provides service to more than 40% of France’s internet customers. A large “plus” for us was that Orange has an English language customer service line (+33  09 69 36 39 00) for sales, questions, service, and trouble-shooting. We liked the security of being able to resolve possible future problems in English rather than attempting to do so using our very limited French.  

Orange logo
Orange logo

I telephoned Orange, spoke with a service representative, and had the account arranged in a few minutes.  Installation was scheduled for a two-hour window in six days. Between my phone call and the appointment, I was told to expect the “LiveBox” (a combined modem and wireless router) to be delivered to our new apartment by La Poste (the French Post Office.)  The LiveBox device did arrived two days later. I also received also an e-mail reminder of my installation appointment (with the option to “click” on a button to delay the installation if necessary) and a mailed “hard copy” of my contract with Orange.)

Six days later while we were waiting to go to the apartment to meet the installation technician at 3:00, we received a phone call at 1:00 saying that the technician was ahead of schedule and asked if we could meet him early.  We went right over to the apartment and met our technician.  He set up the apartment’s LiveBox, went to the end of the block used his truck’s “snorkel” to “switch on” the connection on the telephone pole, and then went to the main control box down the block to activate our service.  The LiveBox is only the size of a hardback book and it is a “stand-alone” unit that does not require that it be connected to a dedicated computer.

The whole installation was done in less than an hour.  We then had active broadband internet as well as landline phone service that is included with the account.

Orange LiveBox
Orange LiveBox

In France the norm for internet service is by ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) carried over the copper telephone lines. France is the second largest ADSL market in Europe after Germany.

An issue we had over the last year has been the slow internet speed and narrow bandwidth at our prior apartment in Argelès-sur-Mer. While the landlord’s provided internet service was technically “broadband,” at best it measured at .52 Mbps, most often at .42 Mbps with frequent periods of even slower and sometimes complete outages. Several times I attempted an internet ‘speed test’ and the return was so slow the test “timed out” with no results possible. Tracy, who enjoys Netflix, often had an episode repeatedly interrupted and she was forced to sit and watch the frozen show buffer and buffer and buffer and buffer.  Uploading photos to Facebook could be problematic, YouTube videos might never actually load, and often we both could not be on the internet at the same time.  Our biggest problem occurred when the internet was out-of-service during the November 13, 2015 Paris terrorist attacks and friends and family were unable to reach us to confirm our safety.

Our new internet service “speed test” shows an increase of more than 20 times faster download speed with at least 10.5 Mbps and a 300% increase in upload speed. The difference in “Ping” return is much better; 32 ms for our new service compared to an average 678 ms at the old apartment.

Netflix recommends a broadband connection speed of at least 1.5 Mbps download for standard viewing and 5.0 Mbps for high-definition. Skype recommends 0.1 Mbps for voice calls, 0.5 Mbps for video calls and 1.5 Mbps for HD video calls. (But since most speed tests measure download and upload speeds separately, a person making a Skype call needs higher internet speeds than the minimum recommendations because the communication is in two directions at the same time.)

While we were moving items to the new apartment this morning and putting together a new shelf unit, I received a follow-up call from Orange. They wanted to double-check how our appointment went, if everything was working properly and if we were pleased with the technician who installed our service. Very nice customer service from Orange so far.

So along with the excitement of moving into our new apartment, Tracy and I are thrilled to once more have efficient internet access and that the whole process was simple and easy.

 

 

Getting Renter’s Insurance and an Attestation d’Assurance Habitation in France

So with Tracy and I “upping our game” from living in a “furnished one year vacation rentals” to taking on a “Bail de Trois” (standard three-year lease) of an unfurnished apartment (A Change of Address), our real estate agent Camille advised us we needed to obtain renter’s insurance before we can take possession of the new apartment’s keys.  Contrary to renting a furnished apartment, there is an “obligation on the tenant of an unfurnished tenancy to take out insurance against the risk of fire, explosion, and infiltration of water etc. for which they may be responsible. The minimum insurance required by a tenant is for risques locatifs, but a more prudent policy would be for multi-risques d’habitation, which would include damage or theft to personal belongings. The tenant is required to supply the landlord with a copy of the insurance certificate each year.”  (French-Property.com)

Asking Camille if she had any insurance companies she recommended, she advised us there are many insurance companies available, but the quickest and simplest way would simply be contacting our French bank for coverage.  (Yes, in France you can get home, vehicle, and supplemental health insurance at the bank.  Pet insurance, too. Equally odd to US expats, you can set up a bank account and buy cell phones at the Post Office.) With visions of 1.) a long difficult conversation in our stumbling French, 2.) difficult to understand contract options – all in French legalese, and 3.) a delay in obtaining insurance resulting in a delay in getting the new apartment, we steeled ourselves and headed to our local branch of BNP Paribas.

The bank receptionist was very helpful and was happy to try to complete our request for renter’s insurance, although she did not speak English, she was patient with listening to our poor French.  After a moment she enlisted the help of Julien, a conseiller de clientèle bancaire (bank officer), who spoke English and who could make the transaction easier.  Julien’s excellent English was the result of working in his youth for a year outside Detroit as an au pair and then spending his final month in the US driving Route 66 across America.  His wife and he had just returned from a vacation in New York City.

Julien made the process easy with €20,000 worth of liability, theft, and damage coverage for about €14 a month.  (More than enough coverage with Tracy and my minimalist lifestyle.) We elected to pay an annual premium rather than a monthly payment.  Three signatures and we had the document required for our real estate agent, an Attestation d’Assurance Habitation. We don’t think we ever purchased insurance coverage as easily before.  Quick, painless, and fun discussions with Julien about his experiences in America.

Attestation d'Assurance Habitation
Attestation d’Assurance Habitation

Carcassonne: New Years Eve 2014

Bonne année et bonne santé!  Happy New Year and Good Health!

This last year for Thanksgiving and Christmas, Tracy cooked our holiday meal, and extremely well done they were!

So for New Year Eve, le Réveillon de Saint-Sylvestre, I tried to make my lovely bride, Tracy, as close to a traditional French New Year’s Eve dinner as  I could manage.

So after some research and shopping I  felt I was prepared:

Seared foie gras:  this time of year foie gras is everywhere.  It’s a major menu selection for Christmas and New Year Eve dinners.  Foie gras is incredibly delicious, I had no idea.  I seared it about 30 second on each side.  The good news: it was melt in your mouth perfect.  The bad news:  the high heat searing caused the smoke alarm to trigger.

Blinis with smoked salmon and caviar: smoked salmon appeared to be another favorite for the season.  I also obtained a nice black caviar (not the wonderful and endangered Black Sea or Caspian sturgeon caviar you hear about.  My pockets are not that deep.)  The blinis, tiny buckwheat pancakes, were obtained from a store as we still struggle with baking in France.  Tracy enjoyed both the salmon and caviar.

Polenta with black truffles.  Truffles are a big deal in France.  The polenta had shaved flecks of truffles throughout the pan-fried polenta.

A cheese plate with chèvre, camembert , and roquefort cheeses.  It’s France, there MUST be a cheese plate.  Tracy (and I) love chèvre (goat) cheese.  I also included Camembert de Normandie (A.O.C.) and roquefort (A.O.C.)  blue cheese both of which are “Contraband cheeses” that cannot be imported into the US since they are unpasteurized.

Additionally, I made meatballs, sausages, and sliced ​​meats.  We used to do this for hosting the kids during New Year Eve.  It ended up that I had way too much food, but we enjoyed it over the next week.

Champagne.  What is the point of living in France if you don’t enjoy real champagne for special event?  Of course there was Champagne with dinner.  (Although Tracy and I both love Italian Prosecco sparkling wine.)

Dessert:  Chocolate and café éclairs from our favorite pâtisserie and boules de noël’ chocolat from the Christmas market in Square Gambetta.

It made a fun dinner with a new tradition to welcome in the new year.

New Years Eve dinner
New Years Eve dinner

Carcassonne: Christmas 2013

DELAYED POST, I am catching up our blog after our blogging hiatus while recovering from walking the Camino de Santiago.

December 24 and 25, 2013

A quiet Christmas eve for us.  Tradition in France is to attend la Messe de Minuit evening mass followed by a large family meal, le Réveillon.  Tracy and I had planned to go to midnight mass at Cathédrale Saint-Michel de Carcassonne, but Sami, the min-pin puppy, was having terrible separation anxiety when we would leave her alone in the apartment.  Rather than impose Sami’s whining on our neighbors, we spent the evening dining in and then took a midnight walk with Sami through the Bastide.  Beautiful night walking through the quiet lanes, enjoying the lights.

Cathédrale Saint-Michel (Wikimedia Commons)
Cathédrale Saint-Michel
(Wikimedia Commons)

Père Noël (Father Christmas) was good to Sami Christmas morning.  Sami scammed all sort of treats and toys from Père Noël .  Tracy had previously knitted Sami her own Christmas stocking.

Sami opening her Christmas presents.
Sami opening her Christmas presents.

Christmas evening Tracy made a delicious Christmas dinner. Turkey roast, mashed potatoes, gravy,  sautéed mushrooms, corn, green beans, toasted chèvre cheese on baguette, champagne, and religieuse pastries for dessert.  Sami even got a small portion for her dinner. The nice thing about living in France is that if you want French champagne for dinner it only requires a walk to the end of the block.

We had a nice visit with some of Tracy’s family as they gathered for dinner, via FaceTime on her sister’s iPhone.

Wonderful Christmas, but we are missing our kids over the holiday.

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Carcassonne: Thanksgiving 2013

DELAYED POST, I am catching up our blog after our blogging hiatus while recovering from walking the Camino de Santiago.

November 28, 2013

Tracy and I enjoying our first Thanksgiving abroad.  We celebrated the traditional American (and Canadian) holiday to keep our old family traditions alive while adopting new local traditions.

While our apartment does have an oven, it is a trifle on the small size.  So I located a large turkey breast, more than enough for the two of us (plus leftovers for cold turkey sandwiches and turkey omelets.)  Tracy had the experience of, after years of cooking extra-large turkeys, and sometimes more than one, for family gathering figuring out the correct timing for a single turkey breast.  Finally the challenge of converting  the fahrenheit temperatures to the oven’s celsius settings.

Tracy dominated our little French oven for some amazing turkey, mashed potatoes with gravy, corn, deviled eggs, garlic bread, with a local rosé wine. It was a classic, wonderful dinner followed by Religieuse creme puff pastries from our favorite pâtisserie.  Sami, the min-pin puppy, had her first “people food” with a Thanksgiving dinner all her own.

Wonderful quiet evening at home despite missing our large extended family back in the US, whom we visited with via FaceTime later in the evening.

Thanksgiving dinner 2013
Thanksgiving dinner 2013

Growing Stuff

I have never been much of a plant person. I love fresh herbs for cooking and can arrange flowers, both real and not, but growing something myself has never, ever been something I’m good at. But we live in an apartment so gardening is out of the question anyway.

However, I couldn’t resist the mini herb garden kit at IKEA on our last visit. Basil, coriander and thyme seeds with the dirt and containers to put them in, all for €3,00.

I had the kit for about a week before I got brave enough to open it. It took me a while to figure out that the little brown discs were actually potting soil that had been compressed. But once I figured out how to un-compress the potting soil, the rest was pretty simple. That was two weeks ago.

This week there has been some amazing progress and I have little baby sprouts of basil, coriander and thyme. I’ve been so excited about my baby plants and have even started to rotate the pots so that they grow straight instead of leaning one direction toward the window.

I’ve watered them a bit every third day and am surprised by how fast the little sprouts grow. I was giddy with excitement when I realized this morning that in addition to the baby sprouts I already have there are even more getting ready to break through the dirt any day now.

Alan says I haven’t been so excited about growing things since I quit playing Farmville on Facebook! He’s right, of course, but I’m still pretty happy with my baby plants!

Our Carcassonne Home

This post is mostly for my mom, so she can see where we are living!

Our apartment here in Carcassonne is approximately 550 square feet, maybe a little bigger. So as I sit here listening to “Good Life” by One Republic I thought I would post a few photos of our home here in Carcassonne, France.

This first image is not to scale, just a general layout of the apartment that I threw together in Photoshop.

apartment layput

The apartment is roughly a square and there isn’t a ton of insulation so you do hear the neighbors from time to time, but after living with eight kids noises don’t really bother us anymore! However, you can also hear the church bells from St. Nazaire in Le Cite and from St. Michael’s down the street. It’s a happy sound and one that I fell in love with while we were in Italy, although the bells in Italy are much, much louder!

In addition to the church bells, we had the added treat of someone playing the sax with gusto late last night. But these are comfort noises and we had no trouble sleeping.

Most buildings in our area date from the late 15th to early 16th Century but we do not have an exact date on when our building was built. We do know that the interior was nearly completely gutted and remodeled about 5 years ago. The new owner, our landlord Jason Carr, did a fantastic job keeping as many of the original details as he could salvage. The handrail on the staircase is original to the building and was handcrafted to fit the narrow space a long time ago.

staircase

In addition to the handrail, nearly half of the ceiling in our apartment as well as the two big beams are also original to the building. They were repainted in the original whitewash color (which has a slightly blueish tint). One section also has three of the original nails, hand hammered and looking a bit like large horseshoe nails.

nails

There is a city council group that deals with renovating old buildings and they check that anything that can be seen from the street is restored or as near to period as is possible to achieve when someone renovates an old building in the Ville Basse. We are lucky to be in the front apartment and therefore have some of the original ceiling and beams in our apartment.

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In the living room the furniture is mostly from IKEA, but it’s solid and comfortable, a lot of blue which Alan loves and the minimalist approach to filling the apartment works well for me as I have an issue with clutter. There is a flat-screen tv with both French and UK satellite channels, but we rarely turn it on. The couch converts into a double bed for guests which will be useful in the near future. The windows in both the living room and bedroom have small window seats and large shutters than can be fully open to allow passive solar, closed part way for privacy or even closed fully to keep out the hot summer sun. We love that the shutters here are practical and not just a design feature.

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We did set up Kiara’s stuff in front of the heater. Our poor little girl hardly has any hair and is not a real fan of tile floors, so keeping her from shivering is a constant battle. But she loves, loves, loves the rug, even though it’s practically magenta in color, so much for her taste in decor.

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She also has her own little espresso cup for water and a travel container for her dry food – which she rarely eats.

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The dresser is in the living room, which we both thought odd at first. I added some of the pillows from the couch to break up the white on white color, a couple of photos I brought with me (the small one on the left of the pillow is my Mom and Dad, on the right is our Max), a knick knack that my mom got me before we left about daughters, and we use the vase to store wine bottle corks!

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However, since the dresser serves as a place to store camera/photo equipment cords and backup drives (first full width drawer), our bath stuff (top left), Kiara’s closet (top right), the “overflow” drawer (bottom) as well as a dresser for socks and stuff, it’s becoming less of an oddity than it was on day one.

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There is a bookcase that we use to house our laptops and camera stuff next to the dining room table and next to the dresser.

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The bathroom shares the wall in the dining room and is surprisingly spacious for a European bath. The corner shower allows more space than we anticipated. Our hotel in Florence in 2011 made taking a shower an epic event, it was just wide enough for me to stand in without turning and I had to duck to get my hair wet. Alan’s relief when he saw the shower in this apartment was practically comical. The one feature I really like is the towel heater. Not only does it warm your towel while you shower it radiates just enough heat to be comfy while doing your hair too.

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The kitchen is actually larger than the one we had in our apartment in Sparks. The fridge looks like a pantry as well as the cabinet that houses the microwave. The crisper drawers in the fridge are each about 7″ x 7″ x 6″ they are “cute.” The kitchen already had dishes, cookware, flatware, glasses, and cooking utensils. But we still picked up a few things which we felt were a big necessity like a corkscrew, mortar and pestle (which weighs about 10 pounds), bottles for olive oil. We also picked up drawer organizers for the dresser in the living room (I dislike clutter in drawers too). Probably the oddest thing in the kitchen is the washer/dryer combo unit. The barrel inside is only about 9″ deep and it takes approximately 4 hours to do a small load of laundry, but it gets the clothes clean and doesn’t make a lot of noise.

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The bedroom is on small side but when the door is closed and the heater is on, it’s super cozy. We had really minimized our possessions before moving, so even the small armoire is more than enough room for all our clothing, though we did pick up additional hangers from IKEA so that everything had a hanger of its own. Another weird issue of mine. The pink thing in the bottom of the closet is Kiara’s travel playpen, it’s like a mini pop-up tent with tons of room for her and her stuff.

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We feel like we’re getting a handle on the European apartment and small space lifestyle. We still find challenges once in a while, but all in all, it’s a nice space in a historic area. Alan and I have heard that tourist season is a little crazy in our neighborhood, but we are not expecting it to be any different than Hot August Nights or the Rib Cook-off events we’ve attended for years.

We know that small and minimalist spaces and apartment living may not work for everyone, but did we mention that there is a freakin’ CASTLE in the backyard??

castle

Today’s Lessons

Some people learn by watching others, some people learn by reading and doing, some of us learn by trial and error. Here are today’s lessons:

Our daily routine has suffered a bit being nine hours off of a lifetime schedule. We have found over the last few days that naps help, but that we also get up at the ungodly hour of 3 a.m. when we have had one. That being said, this morning at 6:30 a.m. we found out several truths about making friends with our neighbors.

1: 3 a.m. is an unreasonable time for any living person, over the age of 30, to be wide-awake.

2: 6:30 a.m. is an unreasonable time for any living person, who is retired, to be wide-awake.

3: Being wide-awake for hours on end in the dead of night does not help one make good decisions.

4: Breakfast at 6:30 a.m. is a reasonable idea if:

a: one remembers that one is not alone in the building

b: one remembers to turn on the fan above the oven

c: one remembers to not burn anything when the fan is off

d: one has the slightest clue where the shut off switch is to the smoke alarm

Lesson 1: One does not make friends, in France or elsewhere, by waking them up at the horribly early hour of 6:30 a.m. with a screaming alarm for nearly 20 minutes. Suffice it to say that we are extremely blessed that no one called the fire department as we do not have the language skills to explain ourselves.

Lesson 2: When moving into a new apartment learn how to turn off things that make loud noises.

Lesson 3: Turning off the main power switch from the circuit breaker does not cut the power to a hard-wired smoke detector with a battery backup.

Lesson 4: A man of 6’4″ and a cane of 3’4″ does not equal enough height to remove the battery from the smoke detector of an apartment with 15 ft ceilings.

The award for French faux-pax #1 goes to the Husband. And I must add that even after 20 minutes of trying to silence the smoke detector my eggs were wonderful if just a bit chilled. Tomorrow we should try them again without the alarm!!