Totally Frenched Out

From the blogger formerly known as Samdebretagne

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Transferring money back home

Quite a while back, I mentioned that I was looking for an effective way to save money for retirement since French savings account only offer peanuts in interest and getting a French assurance vie policy equals mega headaches for US tax declarations. (If you're looking for more information on why you shouldn't get ever sign up for an assurance vie, this article does a great job of explaining it here. As a side note, this also applies to investing any mutual fonds/stocks offered by your local bank).

So that doesn't leave a whole lot of options for Americans in France, and I started to look back to investing in the US.  I came across a group of Financial Advisors called Thun Financial, who are dedicated to helping expats abroad, and I have since watched several of their webinars.  While I have not hired them since the amount of money I have isn't nearly enough to be of interest to them, I have been able to get some good advice from their website and frequent free webinars (which is basically invest in the US in both US & World funds).

That means however figuring out how to conveniently and regularly get money back to the US in a cost-efficient manner.  Going through my bank means paying a wire transfer fee here, a wire reception fee there, plus getting a sometimes questionable exchange rate, so I definitely didn't want to do that on a regular basis.  I use XE.com (and their app) regularly for calculating exchange conversions, and I'd heard a lot of good things about them online regarding their money transfers, so I decided to give it a go last week.

The whole process was initially a bit confusing, despite their promises of "it's so easy to use!", so I thought I'd detail it here in case anyone else is looking to transfer money back home.

First of all, you have to sign up with XE, and there is a bit of information verification - including your home address, your French bank account, your home bank account, a photo ID, and a RIB or EDF bill.  Once that has all been approved, you can start your first transfer.  It starts by logging on to their Trade website, and completing a trade. You can either do an immediate trade, set up an automatic trade when the exchange rate reaches a certain rate, or you can set up a rate alert for the next seven days.

To do an immediate trade, you enter in the amount you would like to transfer, and then it gives you an immediate quote of how much money you will receive in the foreign currency.  If you're happy with that, you press "book trade", and you'll receive an email asking you to transfer the EUR amount to their French bank account, specifying your unique trade quote as the object of the transfer (be sure to select "EFT Trade" - it takes a day or two longer than a wire transfer, but it is the free option).  They will then transfer that same amount to their account in your home country, who will then do an internal transfer to your home account.  So as you can see, there's a few more steps involved, but in the end, it means you don't pay an international transfer fees on either end.  The rates they quote are also better than I've seen quotes at least by the BNP.

So voila - a little how-to on an inexpensive way to transfer money back to your home country!

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Saturday, June 11, 2016

Lost in Translation

One of the other reasons I don't really enjoy going to China is that our Chinese team doesn't really have a great level of English.  This makes anything more than basic communication difficult, and also means that they rarely translate anything for me (besides the gross dishes we eat lol), which means I spend most of the day in the dark. It also means that I don't really connect with our customers, and there's no sharing of cultures - two of the things that help make all this travel bearable. So instead I spend a lot of time staring at the wall, daydreaming or on my phone.

During one particularly long dinner, the big boss had spent 5-10 minutes telling a story that had everyone laughing. At the end of it, I asked one of our staff what he had said, and he replied "He had a stroke".  I was like "Hmm...Are you sure that's the right word?"  So he double-checked the translation and it was indeed stroke. What?  How on Earth is that funny? But my further attempts to understand were met with blank stares and it's still a mystery today...

On a completely unrelated note, the ladies from my masters program organized another night out last night. We've been taking turns hosting, and it's always a good time. Somehow we got to talking about various theme parties we've been to (the "Come as your favorite metro station" was voted the best idea), and I mentioned that the night I would be attending a sort-of costumed party.  The wonderful Lily will be celebrating her recently-acquired French citizenship, and asked us all to come dressed as a French person.  So I jokingly asked the girls if they had any ideas of what I should wear, and I was just met with blank stares. I offered "You know....stuff like striped shirts...berets...a baguette under your arm?"  Cue the crickets!  I tell ya, it was pretty awkward there for a minute, but I sure was laughing on the inside.

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Friday, June 10, 2016

Back before you know it

It's not often you get to say "So this week I went to China for four days".  I was told a few weeks ago that the trip was canceled, and then all of the sudden last Friday, they were like "Actually, can you leave on Sunday?".  All of this mega travel must have really changed me, because instead of freaking out about having to literally go to the other side of the world in two days, I just sighed and said "Let me check out some flights".

I ended up finding an excellently priced ticket on Finnair, an airline that I used to fly all the time when we would go visit our family in Finland, but it's been probably 20 years since the last time I used them. I wasn't super excited about having a connecting flight, since I've got a pretty good routine going on those 12h flights now that helps me avoid jet lag, but I was looking forward to picking up a few Finnish items for my family there.

It was actually really enjoyable to fly Finnair - I loved the blueberry juice they served and the Marimekko blankets and pillows.  The flight attendants were super nice, and extremely patient with my attempts to speak to them in Finnish. It actually ended up making me feel really nostalgic for my Finnish-speaking days, and I loved letting the conversations of fellow passengers roll over me.  For some reason, my last trip to Finland didn't jog my memory as much, but this time, I had memories and Finnish words popping up left and right. I understood much of what was said, and was able to order my food and have brief conversations, and it was lovely.

It made up for the rather difficult trip to China - I spent a LOT of time speeding down terrible roads in cars with no seat belts. This actually represents a sort of moral issue for me.  My father passed away in a car accident because he was not wearing his seat belt. It was all a big mystery to us because he always wore a seat belt, and always insisted that we do as well.  So why not that day? Needless to say, buckling up in a car is kind of a big deal to me, and I'm pretty principled about it, ie I won't let someone ride with me if they don't strap in.  But what do you do when there is no other option?  Taxis didn't have them, most of our customer's vehicles didn't have them, and I couldn't exactly refuse to get in when we had a three hour drive in front of us... It all left me feeling vaguely uncomfortable and ill at ease.

The food was also difficult this time around. One lunch consisted of boiled cow stomach, larynx and spine. I'm all for trying new foods at least once, but I must admit that organs are the most difficult for me to swallow, both literally and figuratively.  There were no other options, and I didn't want to be rude, so I just had to suck it up, even though the sight of them was making me gag.  I tried to psyche myself up like I did in Japan when I had to it raw egg over cold rice by saying "Look, they eat this stuff all the time. They must know how to cook it to make it tasty, or they wouldn't eat it".  Boy was I wrong - it must be one of those acquired taste things. The stomach was like rubber and I could feel every single one of the villi as I chewed. And chewed and chewed. The larynx was even worse. And I could barely swallow the fatty/cartilageous spine. I'm telling you, it was rough, and I'm getting a bit green just thinking about it again.

Luckily not all of the meals were that bad, but those were a long four days, and I sure am happy to be back home in Paris, strikes and all. Summer appears to be in full swing at last, and we've got an action-packed ten days before we take off to the US.


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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Discosoup

This past Saturday, C & I participated in an event at our local market called Discosoup. It was co-sponsored by the Discosoup Movement and Les Rencontres Cuisine et Santé.  The goal of the event was twofold - to raise awareness of food waste and to show how fruits and veggies that would normally be thrown out can be turned into appetizing and healthy meals.
Prior to our arrival, they had gone around to several market stands to collect the fruits and veggies that would be thrown out. They ended up with quite the selection - eggplant, zucchini, carrots, onions, bananas, strawberries, kiwis, apricots, apples and loads and loads of peaches.

The chef gave each one of us a knife and then we started sorting through all of the boxes of food, first cutting out the bad parts, then washing, then cutting into pieces and peeling. 
They also had a live band (of anglophones!) playing 50's music to accompany us while we chopped and peeled. 
Then it was time to start cooking, mixing and assembling.There were several different tables going at once:
And what kind of meal would it be without some wine? :)
Once it was done, everyone was handed a bowl and a spoon and invited to dig in. The various tables had prepared a vegetable soup, an asparagus soup, an eggplant dip, a spicy salsa, and several different fruit smoothies (apple-kiwi, banana-strawberry, pear, peach-apricot, etc).

A torrential rain started pouring down right at that point - which was right when those poor kids were struck by lightning in the park - so everyone started packing up and leaving.  They had suggested in the welcome email to bring tupperware, and no one else had really brought any, so C and I loaded up ours with the leftovers and it made for a lovely "recycled" dinner that evening.

This event was a great time, and I would definitely participate again.  The chef was so inviting and friendly, and you could definitely tell he had experience in juggling a lot of pots at the same time. It was pretty inspiring to see how he could take a quick look at the available ingredients and then spout off several recipes to prepare.  The other participants were also much more open than I was expecting from French people, given that most people had come in groups of 2-3 and I was expecting them to stick together and not mingle.

I'd definitely recommend checking out their website - I believe their next Discosoup is in a few weeks in Vincennes, but both organizations have other events scheduled elsewhere all over Ile de France.

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Saturday, May 28, 2016

La Fête des Voisins

Last night was the annual Fête des Voisins, or "Neighborhood Party".  It was only my second FdV - the first one being years ago when I lived in my shoebox in the 5th.  Because of my on-going battle with the travaux-loving nuns in our last building (long story), we never attended any when we lived in the 15th.

And I was in Asia the past two years for the FdV, but this year was finally around to attend one in our new residence.  I had mixed feelings about going - on one hand, it would be nice to meet more people in our building, and on the other, I worried about losing the anonymity of appearing like just another French person.  (All those years in Bretagne have made me sensitive about being known as "The American).

We also had tickets to go see a Franco-American Comedy Hour (more on that later), so we eventually decided to attend for the first half hour and then head out.  We went downstairs at 7pm on the dot, and surprisingly not only was the party already in swing but there were several young couples in attendance.

Our building is mainly full of original owners who bought their apartment back when it was built, and most of them are now well into their 70's and 80's.  If you didn't know better, our residence could almost be mistaken for a nursing home...  But I have been seeing more and more posted signs saying "Mme X on the XX floor passed away" over the past year or so, and then shortly after a "for sale" ad, and it appears that several other young couples have recently moved in. Notre immeuble se renouvelle...

So we had a quick drink with a Romanian-British couple, a Romanian woman, and a Russian woman, and then off we went to the spectacle.  After it finished, we tried to find a place to have a drink outside, but the bars were so packed that we decided to just come back home and have a drink on our balcony. However on our way in, we saw the commons room door still open, so we decided to go see if the FdV party was raging on.

We found the last few stragglers, including our concierge and his wife, the Russian woman, and the extremely frail and elderly lady who takes care of the building's garden.  It was an odd mix, but they invited us for a drink, so we sat down to join them.  A little while later, the Russian woman's husband and another guy around our age came down.  More bottles and glasses were brought out and one drink turned into several.

I made it for about two hours before the Russian woman's husband turned to me and said "Wait a minute, you have a small accent, where are you from?"  I immediately thought - darn it, my cover is blown!  (However, I found out later that he also said the same thing to C, so I possibly could have just pretended to be from Bretagne or somewhere else in France).   His wife heard and immediately started talking to me in English.  Turns out she had lived in NYC for two years and was a big fan of the US. I didn't really feel comfortable speaking in English since I knew the others didn't understand, but she was a persistent one. 

As the night wore on and the alcohol kicked in, she became progressively harder to understand.  It's not like she was slurring or anything, just that the words she was stringing together didn't make any sense, and then she'd finish with "You know what I mean?".  Um, no, actually I have no clue!  That went on for quite some time, and we finally wrapped things up around 2am.

But not before this one really spacey guy told a story about how several years ago, a child he'd had with his ex-wife had been kidnapped by some Circus folk in the south of France, and it took the police three days to find him. Once the kid was found, this guy was thrown in jail for three days!  It wasn't really clear why - possibly for negligence?  It did make me think twice though when they suggested we all meet for dinner in the future.  I know I keep saying I need to meet new people, but...


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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

48h in Hong Kong

I returned back to Paris this weekend, after two weeks in China.  It was a crazy trip, and left me fairly exhausted. I do okay when I travel by myself, but when I travel with my boss and/or co-workers, we tend to all enable each other into too much food and booze, and not enough sleep and exercise.  Plus, I'm fairly introverted, so things like trade shows really take a lot out of me.  Having to be smiley and friendly all day long is hard work for this girl. ;)

I traveled to two different parts of China, and had a free weekend between the two weeks, so I decided to take the train to Hong Kong.  I didn't really want to hang around where I was nor go back to Shanghai, plus Oneika was back in town for an extended stay, so I figured why not?

I didn't really know much about Hong Kong besides that it was a major financial center full of expats, but the more research I did, the more I was looking forward to going. In the end, I actually had a hard time trying to fit everything I wanted to do in the two short days I had there.

And unfortunately my two short days became even shorter after a 3h+ train delay.  About 30 min after leaving the station, my train stopped in the middle of nowhere. Shortly after, several men with shields, guns and batons started surrounding our train. Announcements were made in Chinese, but I couldn't understand a word they were saying, and no one around appeared able to translate.
As time went on, the train turned into one hot, sweaty mess and other passengers became quite agitated. People were banging on the windows and the doors, and being very aggressive with the train employees. One hour became two hours, and then two hours nearly three hours, and I was getting progressively more and more anxious. I had no water, no money and no clue what was happening.  I finally had the bright idea to send a message to one of my Chinese colleagues, and he was able to talk to one of the train employees for me.  The train was broken, they would not be sending a new train, and we would sit there on the tracks until it was repaired.  The guards were there so that no one would try to escape off the train.  Whew, finally some information.  And luckily not too long after that, the train started up, the A/C came back on, and we continued on our way.

I lost no time after arrival, quickly dropping my bags off at my AirBnB, and then heading up to The Peak for some 360° views of the city. 
I meandered back down, took a quick shower (HK is hot, hot, hot!), and then headed out for a night out on the town. I was lucky enough to be invited to a bachelorette party and experienced the best of the city's nightlife.  So. Much. Fun.
The next day, I rolled myself out of bed at an ungodly hour and made the long trek out to see the Big Buddha.  I climbed the 260 steps up to see him and to enjoy the aerial views.
And then I headed back down to do some hiking. It turns out that Hong Kong is mix of islands, city and scenery, and I only got a short taste of it all during my stay. 
After following the wisdom path, I looped back around to check out the Po Lin Monastery. The lunch there came highly recommended.  My opinion?  If you're with a large group, it's worth it because you get to try 8 dishes, but if you're alone or with a small group, you only get 4 dishes and you pay the exact same price...  The food was good, but I could have gotten pretty much the same thing for 1/4 of the price from the vendors just outside of the restaurant (with a lot less waiting).
Those of you that know me know that my travel style is pretty thrifty, but I also like to splurge every once in a while. So for example, C & I may get a super fancy hotel and then have a romantic picnic for dinner. To get up to the Big Buddha, most people take the cable car there and back (at a cost of around 29€/$33).  That seemed a little pricey for me, and thanks to Google, I found out there was a bus that went up there for 1.90€/$2.10. The bus ended up providing some great scenery, and also let me enjoy guilt-free the 360° crystal cabin ride on the way back down (19€/$23).
Once back on hard ground, I checked out several markets. My verdict - meh. Cheap shopping is definitely better in China or Thailand.
I meant to watch the city scape light show before heading home, but Oneika talked me into a foot massage instead.  :)
It was a quick ferry ride back to Central, and then I had to take the longest escalators in the world back to my AirBnB.
I ended up having an unexpectedly great time in Hong Kong, and I would definitely like to go back for a longer stay in the future. From the little I saw, there are a lot of other islands, beaches and trails still to be explored, as well as several other cultural sites in the city that I didn't get to see.  Public transportation was great and easy to use, most people spoke decent English, I felt very safe walking around alone, and the food options are plentiful.  The only downside is that it's a fairly expensive place to visit, but it can be done for a reasonable price if you use options like AirBnB and eat locally. It would be a great place to spend 3-4 days before heading out on an Asian Cruise for example!

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Friday, May 6, 2016

Top Ten Mistakes to Avoid when Renewing a US Passport!

One of the biggest frustrations when renewing your passport is receiving your application back in the mail because of a mistake.  This is frustrating 1) because you've wasted precious renewal time and 2) you've wasted your precious argent on that darn Chronopost envelope.

So here is my list of the Top 10 Mistakes to Avoid when renewing your US passport:
  1. Don't use the same photo as last time - your passport photo must be different from that of your last passport, and recent. 
  2. Along the same lines, don't use a French size passport photo - it must be 2x2" or 5x5cm with a white (not grey) background. You can read more about the photo requirements here. As of today, there is only one official photographer approved by the US Embassy. It is Photo Madeleine, and they are located at 41 rue Boissy d'Anglas 75008 Paris. The current cost for US passport photos is 10€.
  3. Your passport application should be filled out on the computer.  Filling it out entirely by hand will mean a longer processing time. Do not forget to sign and date your application by hand however!
  4. Wildly different signatures. It's true that if you got your last passport at 16 and then another one at 26, your handwriting may have changed (no more hearts over your i's for example...).  But if your current signature looks too different from the signature on your previous passport (or you never signed your previous passport), your application could be refused.
  5. French or American checks are not accepted. Applications sent by mail must be paid with a mandat cash from the French Post Office; applications done in person can be paid in dollars, euros or by credit card.  
  6. Don't purchase your mandat cash a long time in advance before you send in your application.  This is a little known fact, but the passport price in Euros is changed every few months due to exchange rate fluctuations. And if your mandat cash does not match the current amount (even if it is for more), your application will be returned.  So buy your mandat cash the day you send your passport (more instructions can be found here). 
  7. There are different prices for payment in dollars or euros, so be sure your mandat cash is also for the euro amount. 
  8. There is no need to send your passport application via Chronopost. You can save yourself 27€ by using a normal letter (if you trust La Poste!), or a registered letter. 
  9. Don't try to get away with including a registered letter for the return however - your application will be sent back with a request to include a pre-paid, self-addressed Chronopost*.
  10. This last piece of advice is one of the most important ones - be sure to write down your Chronopost tracking number before you send off your application, and set a reminder on your phone to check it once a week (or sign-up for delivery notifications if possible).  A phenomenal amount of passport applications are returned to the Embassy each day because the Chronopost envelope was not picked up within the two week time frame.  This is (mainly) through no fault of the American - it's most often the Chronopost deliveryman who never leaves a delivery attempt note - but it means that your passport could be sitting at the Post Office without your knowledge. And then you will need to send the Embassy another Chronopost letter in order to get it back!  So keep that tracking number and check it regularly online. 
*The US Embassy used to accept pre-paid registered mail envelopes for return, but so many of them got lost and/or stolen on top of the fact that delivery notifications were rarely given out, that they eventually decided to go with the Chronopost. So even though the Chronopost is more expensive and there is still the issue of delivery notifications sometimes not being given, they have at least greatly reduced the possibility of your passport being stolen along the way.

Here's one last bonus DON'T - US Passport applications are country-specific, so do not waste your time looking at the US Passport site or the US Embassy websites for other countries. Requirements differ according to the country, and you'll only end up getting even more confused!

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