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

 

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

Réveillon du Nouvel an 2016

 

Tracy made a wonderful traditional US style Christmas dinner for us with turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, but with the French touches of Muscat de Noël wine and a Bûche de Noël cake.  New Years Eve 2015-2016 dinner was then up to me to make a proper French Réveillon dinner . . .  or at least as proper of a Réveillon dinner as this US Expat can figure out, shop, cook, and serve.

Réveillon is the traditional dinner that people in French-speaking countries celebrate the night before Christmas and New Year’s Day. Some of the traditional foods vary by region but can include turkey with chestnut stuffing, caviar or smoked salmon on blinis, oysters, foie gras, lobster, and coquille Saint Jacques (scallops). (More descriptions of Réveillon dishes with “food porn” photos at “The Local-France” Ten dishes that make up a French Christmas feast. )

For our New Year’s Eve Réveillon dinner I prepared:

  • Roasted Magret de Canard (oven roasted duck breast.)
  • Grilled Boudin Blanc de porc with truffles. (White pork sausage with black truffles.) Boudin Blanc in France are made with milk while the Boudin Blanc made in Cajun Louisiana is made with pork and rice stuffing.
  • Pan-fried Foie Gras (Duck Liver.) (I have previously learned the trick to remove the battery from the smoke alarm when cooking Foie Gras. The high heat pan and high fat content of the Foie Gras can trigger the smoke detector.)
  • Quiche Lorraine with bacon, cheese and scallops in place of Coquille Saint Jacques for our seafood course. (A purchased quiche since I didn’t think I would have enough time to cook everything.
  • A canapés and cheese plate including Catalan Sausage, duck breast, Foie Gras, Chevre (goat cheese), Brie, Fourme d’Ambert (raw cow’s milk blue cheese), with Rondelé de Président Ail de Garonne & Fines Herbes (creamed cheese spread) and small toasts.  Several of these cheeses are contraband and cannot be imported into the US.

For dessert a Bûche de Noël au chocolat (chocolate cream “Yule Log” cake with layers of crystallized sugar filling) purchased from our nearby pâtissier.

And, of course, Champagne. (What’s the point of living in France without toasting the New Year with real French champagne?)

Our canine children, Sami and Lou, enjoyed a bite of duck with their dinners too. Sami especially loves Canard!

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Black Saturday 2015: The Juillettistes Against The Aoûtiens

Today is Saturday, August 1, 2015, the biggest traffic day of the year in France.  Why?

Samedi Noir” (Black Saturday) is the changeover between the juillettistes (families that take their annual vacations in July) and the aoûtiens (families that take their annual vacation in August).Le chassé-croisé des juillettistes et des aoûtiens,” is the cross-over of July and August vacationers and an annual “event” usually on the last Saturday of July.

Traffic stopped on highway. Sous licence CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons -
Traffic stopped on highway.
Sous licence CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons –

It’s like the US Memorial Day weekend traffic, squared, because of France’s centralized highway system.  Millions of French travelers are on the road today, some heading home after holidays and others on the way to their vacation destinations. It is called “Les jours de grands départs” (the days of great departures) across France.

Bison Futé the French government agency that monitors traffic, reports numerous category “black” alerts (where “Black Saturday get’s its name) about traffic jams and congestions all across France. “Category “black” means that on all main roads and highways there will be at least 700 kilometres of tailbacks. That’s easily going to be the case tomorrow,” Cyrille Leblic, a spokesman for the national information road centre (CNIR). He estimated that the tailbacks would in many places exceed 900 kilometres, and, in some cases start as early as 4am Saturday.”

Real time traffic alerts on the Bison Futé website.
Real time traffic alerts on the Bison Futé website.

It’s a good day to be car-less in France. Enjoying a day at home!

 

 

 

The €1 Bus in the Pyrénées-Orientales

One of the biggest bonuses with living in Argelès-sur-Mer within the Pyrénées-Orientales Department has been Le Bus à 1€ (the €1 Bus), a public transportation system providing bus service throughout the department with dozens of bus routes to scores of cities. This is an amazingly useful and economical way for Tracy and I to travel since we have elected not to buy a car.

Our transportation for the day.
Our transportation for the day.

With a €1 Bus stop 100 yards from our front door, it is actually more convenient for us to take the €1 Bus to Perpignan to go to the large supermarket shopping there than to walk to the smaller supermarket that is in Argelès.  The current bus schedule list 19 buses a day from Argelès to Perpignan, Monday through Saturday, starting at 6:50 am until 8:40 pm. There is a reduced bus schedule on Sundays. In July and August there are additional routes during the summer season connecting the small beach towns along the Côte Vermeille. Additionally there is an expanded schedules for regular routes during these peak summer months.

1€ Bus Schedules
1€ Bus Schedules

The €1 Bus service is provided by the Conseil Général des Pyrénées-Orientales, an elected board of 31 Conseillers Généraux (one for each of  the 31 Cantons of the Pyrénées-Orientales) and a Chairman. Members of the Conseiller Général are elected for a 6 year term. The Conseil Général decides public policy at the department level similar to the role and responsibilities of a county commission in the United States.

1€ Bus Map
1€ Bus Map

For the price of a single Euro each (currently about $1.11), we can reach nearly anywhere in the Pyrénées-Orientales.  The tickets also allow transfers for two hours to other bus routes traveling in the same direction within the €1 Bus system.  That means we can take the bus from Argelès to Perpignan for €1, do some shopping, get on a different bus still outbound within the two-hour transfer time limit, and go to Prade for lunch.  A return ticket for €1 each will bring us back to Argelès.  A traveler would spend more on gasoline than the €2 cost of a round-trip on the bus. (Currently gasoline costs about €1.37 a liter, about $1.50. There are 3.8 liters to a gallon, so gasoline would cost about $5.70 a gallon.)

1€ Bus Tickets
1€ Bus Tickets

The buses are clean, modern, and comfortable motor coaches. They are dog-friendly and Sami the MinPin can travel with us with the use of a travel bag while she is inside the bus. There are overhead racks for backpacks and under-the-bus-carriage storage for large suitcases or even bicycles.  There are even several “Réso 66” stops, “Park and Ride” locations where commuters to park their cars for free and let the bus drive them to work or school. The bus drivers are friendly and helpful, but pretty much they exclusively speak French (if the drivers do speak a second language it’s most probably Spanish or Catalan.)  But between our very basic French language skills, pointing at the stop we want on the map, or showing the driver a promotional brochure for a tourist sight, we have not had any problem communicating.  (And there is always the red “Stop” button to indicate that you want off the bus.)

€1 Bus Interior
€1 Bus Interior

Tracy and I have been making great use of the €1 Bus for our Micro-Adventures. With just €4, a camera, a bottle of water, an inquisitive MinPin, and a picnic lunch, we have an entire day’s entertainment exploring in the Pyrénées-Orientales.

Tracy enjoying one of our Micro-Adventures at Les Orgues d'Ille-sur-Têt
Tracy enjoying one of our Micro-Adventures at Les Orgues d’Ille-sur-Têt, which we reached by the €1 Bus

 

 

Second Renewal of Our Residency Permits (Cartes de Séjour) Part 2

Continued from Second Renewal of Our Residency Permits (Cartes de Séjour) Part 1

While we were doing our final preparations to move from Carcassonne to Argelès-sur-Mer, we received an e-mail from our future landlord that our letters from the Préfecture des PyrénéesOrientales notifying us that our Cartes de Séjour (residency permits) were ready for pick-up. We decided to wait the until we completed our move before we would go to collect our new cards. It had taken the Préfecture about three weeks to officially approve and produce our new Cartes de Séjour.

We moved to our new residence, unpacked, settled-in, completed and submitted our US tax return, shopped for kitchen basics, found the local open-air market, got to know Argelès-sur-Mer’s public transportation system, met a couple from Collioure for drinks, and even hosted friends overnight who were on a vacation through France.

We sorted out the “€1 Bus” schedule to Perpignan and left early on a Thursday morning with the documents the notification letter said were required:  our passports, current Cartes de Séjour, €106 payment each in timbres fiscaux (tax stamps), and the notification letter.  I double-checked the letter and we headed to the Préfecture des PyrénéesOrientales in Perpignan.

"Le Bus à €1" - Conseil Général Pyrénées–Orientales
“Le Bus à €1” – Conseil Général Pyrénées–Orientales

The trip went flawlessly . . . almost.  We correctly figured out the regional bus schedule from Argelès to Perpignan, we remembered the path from the station to the prefecture without error, we successfully planned enough transit time to enjoy a leisurely cup of café crème in a nearby cafe, and we were waiting at the right door when the immigration office opened for business. We were feeling very pleased with our skills navigating life as “strangers in a strange land.”

However, I made the embarrassing and very rookie error while reading our notification letters and mis-translated “mercredi et vendredi” (Wednesday and Friday) as “du mercredi au vendredi” (Wednesday through Friday.) That day was, of course, a Thursday. So we spent the remainder of the day exploring Perpignan, took photos, enjoying a nice lunch before catching the bus back to Argelès.

The next day, Friday, we repeated our inadvertent “trial run” and returned to the Préfecture des PyrénéesOrientales in Perpignan.  This time everything did go flawlessly.  We enjoyed our morning café crème, was near the front of the line when the Préfecture’s immigration opened, and the receptionist gave us the first two numbers to be called to the service windows.  Tracy had our documents well-organized and our immigration official very professionally processed our forms and payment and issued us our new Cartes de Séjour with receipts complete with digital photos should we lose our cards.

Carte de Séjour and Receipts

It took eleven minutes from walking into the Préfecture to walking back out with our new Cartes de Séjour tucked in our wallets.  We are now all set for another year of living in France.

 

Carcassonne – Ten Photos From Walking Around The Neighborhood

Ten photos taken “just walking around the neighborhood” in the Ville Basse (the lower city) of Carcassonne.

Antique "No Parking" sign on a garage along Rue Jean Bringer.
Antique “No Parking” sign on a garage along Rue Jean Bringer.
Menu board from Lard et au Cochon restaurant on Rue Denisse.
Menu board from Lard et au Cochon restaurant on Rue Denisse.
Spring flowers in the market.
Spring flowers in the market.
Menu board from Briocherie-Pâtisserie Arpin on Place Carnot (the town square).
Menu board from Briocherie-Pâtisserie Arpin on Place Carnot (the town square).
The solar eclipse through the clouds at the fountain and Porte des Jacobins à Carcassonne (Jacobin Gate).
The solar eclipse through the clouds at the fountain and Porte des Jacobins à Carcassonne (Jacobin Gate).
Menu board from the wine bar, Lâche Pas La Grappe on Rue du Pont Vieux.
Menu board from the wine bar, Lâche Pas La Grappe on Rue du Pont Vieux.
The iron façade of wine bar, Le Verre d'Un, on Rue de Verdun.
The iron façade of wine bar, Le Verre d’Un, on Rue de Verdun.
Decorative stonework above the windows of a residence on Boulevard Barbes.
Decorative stonework above the windows of a residence on Boulevard Barbes.
Lamps at Place Carnot (the town square.)
Lamps at Place Carnot (the town square.)
Bee investigating a lily offered in the market at Place Carnot (the town square.)
Bee investigating a lily offered in the market at Place Carnot (the town square.)

 

 

 

 

Carcassonne – Nine Photos From Walking Around The Neighborhood

Nine photos taken “just walking around the neighborhood” in the Ville Basse (the lower city) of Carcassonne.

Full moon over the Cité de Carcassonne seen rom the Quai Bellevue.
Full moon over the Cité de Carcassonne seen rom the Quai Bellevue.
Entrance to the Hôtel de Rolland, the Hôtel de ville de Carcassonne.
Entrance to the Hôtel de Rolland, the Hôtel de ville de Carcassonne.
Sami the MinPin has a hero in the neighborhood. Another MinPin that rides with her Dad (a local insurance agent whose office is around the corner) on his motorcycle.
Sami the MinPin has a hero in the neighborhood. Another MinPin that rides with her Dad (a local insurance agent whose office is around the corner) on his motorcycle.
Tributes to victims of Nazi  atrocities.
Tributes to victims of Nazi atrocities.
Gare de Carcassonne (Train Station).
Gare de Carcassonne (Train Station).
Patrons enjoying the cafes in Place Carnot (the town square.)
Patrons enjoying the cafes in Place Carnot (the town square.)
House number on Rue Basse.
House number on Rue Basse.
Statue of Neptune above the fountain in Place Carnot (the town square.)
Statue of Neptune above the fountain in Place Carnot (the town square.)
Detail of René Phileas Carillon's "In Square for the Fatherland," also called "The Audois" (1912), Memorial of the 1870 War at Place Davilla.
Detail of René Phileas Carillon’s “In Square for the Fatherland,” also called “The Audois” (1912), Memorial of the 1870 War at Place Davilla.