Wednesday, November 19, 2008

another day of training

Before I tell you all about another day of fact-filled French training, I have to admit we're still having money problems. Or maybe I should say cash flow problems. I really hate debt, and try to avoid it when possible, but like so many Americans, debt becomes me. I mean, how better than to dig a hole than to decide (15 months ago) that it was worth breaking into our savings to help cover Zander's tutoring/counseling costs... then to tap into savings even more when I worked in New York to help cover the additional living expenses (train, room share, extra baby sitting)... then even more when I quit my job in New York to take time to look for a new position full time... I really, really, hate debt, so much I pretend I don't have it, and, well, that's probably part of the American credit crisis. So I'll be bold and fess up (without full disclosure). I basically owe every penny my house is worth, most of this debt is in my mortgage or home equity loan, and though I do have some money invested for retirement, it's not enough for where I should be by now. It's more complex than that, i.e. I did leverage a fixed-interest loan against an investment a while back (I know, this is a really bad idea--all the investment books say that we should never do this, as it causes financial crises), but after all that New York fun of working with people that couldn't go 2 hours without checking the price of gold or of some major index, I had to try some of this stuff out! I even took all my 401(k) rollover from my 6 years of savings from my Philly job and bought up a lot of low-load index funds when the market crashed in late Sept/early Oct. They say a little knowledge is dangerous... maybe I wasted away my retirement, but I'm still hoping I just got a good deal on something that will eventually come back up.

So, knee-deep in debt, now we're getting letters from collections agencies in our forwarded US mail, aarrgh! We really didn't skip out on any vendors--please don't trash our credit record!!! We closed our accounts over the phone before we left the states, and guess what happened? In literally 6 different companies, they didn't close the account--NetFlix, water, gas, telephone, cell phone, and the library! So we've spent the last couple nights calling back home to try to clean up this mess. And now we'll wait 4 more weeks to find out if they're going to bill us yet again.
When we came to France we found out that it would be very difficult to send money overseas (expensive, anyway) and so I set a goal to make our euros stay here and our dollars stay there. Mostly we've been able to do that, expect for an initial transfer to get us through the first 6 weeks here, and an occasional purchase with an American credit card. One of our current cards is horrible, since they charge us something like $25 for each time they have to change currency, but we closed all our other cards and bank accounts before coming here so don't have an option sometimes. There are lots of places that don't accept American cards (the French use cards with an embedded microchip called a plus), and all automated machines require this plus (train stations, parking garages). So, even though I'm earning money now, it's in euros, so that doesn't help for my dollar-side cash flow. To complicate things even more, as I mentioned, I transferred about 6 weeks worth of living expenses when we first got here, as soon as my French bank account was open. Well, that means I was down to only 1 month of cash left in the US... and I have a mortgage to pay. Well, as soon as the credit crisis hit, my main bank (E*Trade) suddenly changed the rules of the game and decided they wouldn't accept my money orders and starter check deposits, as I blogged about before. We now have our hands on some of that money, but its caught in limbo in a bank-to-bank transfer. Luckily I still have income from my leveraged investment (microlending) so that can be stretched to last until the end of this month. Aargh!

OK, all this is to say that I am just waiting for the day that my American credit card flashes up a payment denied signal... but it sure was a surprise to see that my French bank card has been spontaneously declining charges recently! I know back home I would be mortified to stand at a check-out line and have a payment declined--I would turn beet red, I'm sure. But here, blundering in Besançon, I'm getting used to being utterly incompetent (well, everywhere except at work I hope--there I'm only incompetent maybe half the time, I hope!)

But still, declined payments from the French account??? What's going on? The other day they denied our purchase when we tried to buy used bicycles (but the same card worked fine across the street in the MAC machine), then a few days later it was declined at the grocery store. This time the MAC machine didn't work at all. Oh, and since it was a weekend I couldn't call my banker to ask why! There is money in the account, I checked online! So what gives? Apparently there's this thing called a plafond glissant. That means something like a rolling limit--every 15 days I'm authorized to spend up to 1500 euros, and there's a separate limit for MAC machines--300 euros for non-network banks every 7 days, and 460 euros per day for Banque Populaire machines. Well, as soon as our stuff got here from the states we went on a shopping spree to furnish our apartment with sufficient shelving to hold all our stuff, plus 4 bicycles. Et le-voilà, we spent our limit!


OK, so back to my formation sur la vie en france lesson, which happened yesterday. I found out it was at the same location as last week's training, and instead of taking the 45 minute bus ride I decided to bicycle over there. I rode with Zander to school (he's been begging to bike there for a while) and then I made the 4km trip in less than 20 minutes. This time I took notes, and found out a bit more about the population of immigrants. There were people from the following nationalities (and more, sometimes they didn't say where they were from): Turkey (10 people + translator), Algeria, Senegal, Chechnya (3+translator), Bolivia. Most of these people were unemployed, and had been in the country for typically 9 months. I'm the only American, and have the least tenure (2 months) vs. the next person's 4 months and others up to 2 years. Here are today's little-known facts about life in france:

  • as soon as a person is a legal resident, they are the same before the law (except for voting) as a regular citizen, including the fact that that I don't need to carry my passport with me all the time
  • there are more requests for apartments than there are apartments available (and almost everybody rents here because downpayments on houses are something like 80%), so it can take more than 4 months to find lodging
  • it's forbidden in the preschool and elementary school levels to wear or show any symbols of any religion
  • there are 4 years of preschool (2-5 yrs old), 5 of elementary (6-10 yrs old), 4 of middle school (collège), then if desired, 3 more years of high school (lycee) for a baccaloreate
  • unemployment benefits are quite significant... something like 1 year full salary, and you don't have to take work that is not the right fit for your level of training (unlike in the UK)
  • the social security system pays only a portion of health care costs--everyone that is employed tends to contribute to a health insurance plan, and then out of pocket costs are essentially zero through a reimbursement plan

Even during French training, we get 2 hour lunch breaks. I came home to share in this delicous meal prepared by Rebecca (sliced kiwi, mozarrella+tomatoes, grilled gouda-cheese sandwiches using the day's fresh bread, ham, plus chopped cucumber and peppers). Mmm, la vie en france, c'est bon!

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