Sunday, 31 July 2016

Flat Update

We bought the flat.

In the last 24 hours before the signing date the bank managed to fit in one last act of idiocy when we were finally able to send back the last set of paperwork that would allow them to transfer the funds to the lawyer. They received it at 10 am that day and were supposed to send the payment immediately, but at the end of the afternoon Understanding Frenchman got a phone call from our adviser saying that he had omitted to sign one of the pages. Except that he had. The adviser sent him a scanned copy and there were our two signatures, clear as day on the page.

It turned out that what had happened was that, because my signature is basically just my name written in my normal handwriting and his is a bit more "signature"-like (although you can still see his last name clearly written if you look for more than about a second), someone had decided that I had written my name and then signed underneath and that he had forgotten to sign. (This despite the fact that both of our signatures also appeared on the front page of the document next to our typed names.) By the time they'd figured out the mistake, it was too late to send the payment.

However (with yet another reminder from both UFM and the lawyer the following morning) the bank did eventually transfer the money half an hour before we were due to sign. Paperwork dealt with and keys in hand, UFM went happily back to work while I returned home with the baby.

A few hours later there was another phonecall. This time it was the previous owners, to say that they had just been informed by the gardienne that water was coming through the ceiling from our flat into the flat below. Feeling like we were in some kind of sick reality TV show, UFM rushed off to the flat to see what had happened while I dashed to the insurance agency to confirm our policy starting that very day (Our super-cool baby was smart enough to stay asleep through all of this!). In the end it turned out that the flood was actually in the flat above and the water was running through our wall into the one below, so we ended up with more paperwork to sign and some extra repair work to do, but luckily no financial liability. Fingers crossed that our trials are now over and that in a few weeks we'll be enjoying our new abode!

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The Last Bastion of Bureaucratic Nightmares?

I first lived in France in 2002, then again in 2005. Since I came back in 2009, I've repeatedly been pleasantly surprised by how much easier many administrative procedures have become. I remember the galère me and my assistant friends went through to obtain a carte de séjour, open a phone line or access the healthcare system in 2002. By 2009 I had no problems obtaining either a landline or a mobile phone, and instead of sending off endless documents to the sécurité sociale for each medical appointment, in most cases you can now be reimbursed automatically by both la sécu and your mutuelle just by handing your carte vitale over to healthcare providers, and access and change your account details online at the click of a button.

Then Understanding Frenchman and I applied for a mortgage and I discovered that French bureaucracy can still be a total nightmare.

I won't go into the details here because it's really, really tedious, but here is an example of one of the many things which have gone wrong. To obtain a joint mortgage, we needed a joint bank account. UFM's bank branch not being open on a Saturday, we went together to mine. Unfortunately, when UFM told his advisor last suller that we had got married, the advisor neglected to update his customer profile, meaning that we couldn't open a married couple's account. And the ONLY person who could make this change (on a computer system accessible to all branch staff) was that one advisor in the other branch, who wasn't back at work until the middle of the following week.

In France, when you buy a property, you sign a compromis de vente (agreement to sell) with the sellers, then you have three months before the signature of the acte de vente, which is when the property actually changes hands. This is to allow time for the sellers to provide certain documents, for the mairie to make sure they don't want to exercise their right to buy the property for public purposes and for the buyers to get their mortgage agreement in place. Over the past three months we have been efficient with our mortgage application to the point that I was signing documents from my bed in the maternity hospital. The bank, meanwhile, have wasted days and days ate every step by taking a week to send documents through their internal mail (you could literally have walked and delivered the envelope by hand in less time than it took them to send a letter from Paris to Nanterre), then sending repeat copies of things we had already signed, requesting things they didn't actually need and leaving absolutely everything to the last minute. Last week it got to the point where our final date for signing the acte de vente was coming up and it didn't look as if the mortgage was going to be in place in time.

In theory, this meant that not only would the sellers be perfectly within their rights to sell the property to somebody else, but they would get to keep our deposit (10% of the price of the property, so a tidy sum) as well.

Luckily my husband is awesome, and after an hour on the phone one afternoon telling the bank in no uncertain terms exactly how useless they were, our case was being "discussed at the highest level" and our file "passed through as urgent", and (touch wood) it looks as if we will have the funds in time to stop the sellers heading off into the sunset with our hard earned savings and leaving us with nowhere to live.

But it has been unbelievably stressful. UFM has been taking charge of the whole thing because he has done this before and has insider knowledge of the system, and I have been somewhat preoccupied with a certain other matter over the past nine months, but even experiencing his stress second hand has been tough (and he is normally a very calm person). I haven't been able to give him any real advice or support, as if he can't make things go right, there is absolutely no chance that I will do better. That doesn't feel good either.

Because another nasty mark that this experience will leave on my mind is the awareness of how much worse it would have been if I had been doing this by myself. Not just because I'm not as knowledgeable, organised or efficient as Understanding Frenchman, but also because as a foreigner, it's so much harder to complain. If I had had to make that phone call, not only would I not have had the gumption to carry on insisting for a whole hour that they do something to sort out the mess (because we Brits feel embarrassed about these things), but they would have heard my petit accent and my words would automatically have carried less weight. After all, who am I to tell the French what is and is not normal in their own country?

I hope that none of you will have to go through what we have if you are ever buying property in France, and luckily our experience really isn't the norm. UFM had a previous mortgage with a different bank and the whole thing was processed within a month, while many friends and acquaintances (French and other) have had an easier time than we have. Just in case you ever do though, I leave you with what is apparently the worst insult that you can possibly hurl at a large international company that supposedly prides itself on customer service: "votre façon de travailler, c'est la sécurité sociale des années 80, quoi!"

It's particularly effective when that company likes to describe itself as la banque d'un monde qui change.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Why You Shouldn't Read Blogs Like This One

I read an article online about France the other day which annoyed me. This happens frequently - it's one of the dangers of the internet in general, and of reading "lifestyle" pieces about France in particular. On this occasion, the article was about pregnancy in France and about how medical professionals here encourage you not to gain too much weight. (I'm not going to link to the article, as this isn't intended to be a personal attack on the writer, and there are many similar ones out there, so if you want to read them, do a search!)

For those who are not expert in the subject, a "normal" weight gain in pregnancy is considered to be 10-12kg in France (according to the pregnancy bible J'attends un enfant), 10-12.5 kg in the UK and 25-35lbs in the US . (The writer of the article was American.) In other words, we all pretty much agree on what healthy looks like.

There are, however, differences in how this is monitored. My friends in the UK were never weighed during their pregnancies. My personal experience in France was that I was weighed at every midwife appointment, but as I was well within the limits, even before the sadistic diabetes diet, the only comment that was ever made was, "Vous n'avez pas pris trop de poids - c'est bien." A French friend told me that she had been enguelée ("told off") by her doctor for weight gain, but she admitted that she took advantage of being pregnant to eat all the unhealthy things she didn't normally allow herself (and unlike me, she was very slim to start with!) and had put on 25kg by the end, which she then regretted. The 10-12kg rule is often interpreted as 1kg per month, with a little bit more at the end, so French doctors will often tell you to be careful if you go over this monthly limit, and this is what happened to the woman in the article.

Don't get me wrong - I can understand why she was upset. I can well believe that a doctor might apply the one-kilo-per-month rule very strictly, not allowing for the fact that you might gain two or three one month and less the next, or appreciating that the difference between gaining 12kg and gaining 13 or 14 is not that great. French kids are brought up to accept this kind of criticism; Brits and Americans are not.

What annoyed me was the rest of the article, which was several paragraphs about how French (although I think she meant Parisian) women are all extremely thin, hardly eat anything and never serve themselves twice from the bread basket. It may have mentioned that it's all about fitting back into your designer clothes as quickly as possible. (If this particular article didn't, I'm sure there is one out there which did.) Not once did it mention that excessive weight gain is associated with serious complications in pregnancy, such as (ahem) gestational diabetes or the potentially life-threatening pre-eclampsia. She didn't say, perhaps because she didn't know, that the traditional idea of "eating for two" exists in France as well, and that many women, like my friend above, "take advantage" of their pregnancy to eat unhealthy diets and need to be reminded not to. Nor did the writer appear to accept that it is actually quite nice not to have to worry about losing loads of excess weight after the baby is born, when you probably won't have time to spend cooking up carefully balanced, calorie counted meals and when your body is in too much of a mess to contemplate most forms of exercise.

The reason I'm writing about this is not that I think weight gain in pregnancy is a fascinating topic, nor, as I said before, to have a go at this particular writer. Once I got over my annoyance, I realised that the article I read was the perfect illustration of a kind of double-whammy culture clash that causes so many of us grief when we move to a foreign country. The first is the interpretation of words and actions according to our own cultural norms: in France, the doctor was giving the woman sound advice which was for her own good, even if it was difficult to hear; according to American norms he was practically fat-shaming her. The second was that, in trying to interpret her experience, she fell back on stereotypes ("all French women are obsessed with being thin and incredibly stylish"), rather than examining the deeper reasons for her doctor's advice.

The first "whammy" is hard to avoid. You don't realise how deeply ingrained your own cultural norms are until you experience violation of them on a daily basis. It's part of adapting to a new country and it's hard, but the long-term gains are worth it.

The second, however, I feel, can be more easily avoided. While it's interesting and fun to read the kinds of blogs and books where this kind of writing appears, it's also dangerous. If you learn about your adopted country largely by reading the experiences and interpretations of people from your own culture, you'll never adapt your perspective to truly understand where the natives are coming from. In fact, you can even start to see stereotypes (which, although they often contain an element of truth, are rarely the whole picture) that you wouldn't have created for yourself. It's harder, but much better, to immerse yourself in the local culture.

Those are my words of wisdom for the day, but if you want to live dangerously, try Googling what Brits and Americans in France think of la reéduation périnéale. It's obviously all to do with getting back in shape for your husband (and maybe also your lover) and nothing whatsoever with being able to sneeze without fear in middle age ...

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Another Week Gone By

One thing they say about babies which is definitely true is that they make time go both fast and slowly at the same time. I was talking the other day about something which happened towards the end of my pregnancy and I couldn't believe that only a few weeks before we had yet to meet our little bundle of joy, yet there are times (mainly when I'm waiting for her to go to sleep) where I actually watch the clock because one minute feels like at least five or ten.

My parents came to visit last week, and while their main mission was obviously to spend time with their granddaughter, we tried to get out and about a bit more than I usually manage, including taking advantage of having extra pairs of hands to carry the buggy up and down the steps on the metro. We made it all the way to the Ile Saint Louis and sat on a bench in the sun eating ice cream from Berthillon. (Tip: there is always a huge queue at the actual shop in summer, but there is a little kiosk nearby where Mr Berthillon's sister sells the same ice cream.)

The weather has been so weird this spring and summer that it took us until last Sunday to have our first picnic in the park of the year, but now that the sun has come out (sort of - it rained today) we've got another two lined up for the 14 juillet long weekend.

One unfortunate development is that our super cool baby has been suffering from colic and instead of being chilled out 24 hours a day now has a couple of hours in the evening where she screams and screams and screams. I think this has something to do with the way my milk comes out when I'm feeding her, so I've been spending a fair bit of time online googling solutions (the science of lactation is an amazing thing) and the rest of the time wondering if it's better to just accept that babies cry (two hours a day is apparently very normal) and just keep giving her cuddles to help her through it.

Nonetheless, we still feel very lucky to have a healthy baby who otherwise eats well and sleeps enough for us both to get a reasonable amount of shut-eye (and for me to have time to scour the internet for colic remedies...), so as a way of showing my gratitude to the universe, I decided I wanted to donate milk to the Lactarium de l'Ile de France. The lactarium collects milk from donors and gives it to premature and ill babies who for one reason or another cannot have their own mothers' milk. After I sent an email asking for information, a very nice lady phoned me back and explained the whole procedure. We were about to arrange to have the equipment and paperwork delivered to my flat when she asked me if I was English, as she thought she recognised my accent. Sadly, she wasn't just making small talk: as with blood donation, people who were in the UK when mad cow disease was a problem are not allowed to donate milk in France, as there is a very tiny risk of spreading Creutzfeld-Jakob disease. I was really disappointed, as it seemed like such a great thing to do. I guess I'll just have to hope that some non-UK breastfeeding mother in Paris with enough milk, time and inclination will stumble across this and be in a position to take inspiration from my post!

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

My New Parisian Life

When you don't have kids (and especially when you're pregnant), people who do love to tell you how you cannot possibly ever be prepared for how much your life is going to change. They also use the word "overwhelming" a lot in relation to how you will feel both when you hold your newborn for the first time and when you're confronted with yet another explosive nappy change at 4am when you haven't had any sleep.

So I'm a little surprised to be reporting that I haven't found my experience of parenting to be particularly overwhelming or astonishing so far. (The exception to this might have been this morning on a crowded bus, when a rather large woman with a shopping trolley decided she had to push past me to grab a seat that was about to become free, meaning that I had to step off the bus to let other people get out, leaving the baby in the buggy on the bus without me. It took about a minute and the baby was almost a WHOLE METRE away from me with STRANGERS in between us. The tiger-mother fear and rage I felt was totally justified, obviously, and might be described as overwhelming.)

This is not to say that my baby daughter is not the most precious thing in the world to me, or that cleaning poo off the curtains in the wee small hours is easy*. It's just that, maybe thanks to all the warnings, being a parent does feel pretty much like what we signed up for.

And life has definitely changed. Gorgeous baby cuddles aside, one of the nicest things has been enjoying life in our little quartier of Paris. When it takes several hours to be ready to leave the house, and public transport is either inaccessible or carries the risk of incidents like the one above, it's just so much easier to stay local. And so, after 3 years of living here, I have finally got to chatting with the baker and the greengrocer and the pharmacist. (Especially the pharmacist. Having a baby in France involves lots of trips to the pharmacy.) An afternoon's outing might be a visit to the PMI (Protection maternelle et infantile), where the nice ladies offer you glasses of water and supply you with cushions while you feed your baby, or a walk around the park. We've even been to see an osteopath, which also felt terribly French, as it was basically an extra checkup to find out if anything might be wrong with the baby which would probably be deemed unnecessary in the UK but was actually incredibly helpful, as she gave me lots of tips about how to get her to sleep and feed better. All in all, I am enjoying the sense of integration, as well as my expanding baby-related French vocabulary!

I find it funny, too, how some aspects of life are so much more stressful, but often balanced out by how nice people are. This afternoon, for example. After the bus rage incident in the morning, I met a very old friend who was passing through Paris for coffee, then took another bus back home. By this point it was 3 hours since the baby had been fed and there was every risk that she was going to start screaming before we got back. It looked as if we were going to make it until the bus driver announced that the next stop would be the last one, when we weren't even nearly home. It turned out there was yet another manif and the streets were blocked, leaving me with pretty much no choice but to walk the 45 minutes back. And of course, five minutes later, the baby woke up, leaving me desperately looking for a park bench to stop and feed her on. Even after some milk, she was still cross (changing her nappy on a park bench was a step too far, and she was also suffering from indigestion.) But as I sat there desperately trying to strike a balance between soothing her and getting her home, the slightly threatening-looking young man with a very large dog on the next bench struck up a conversation on the causes of infant crying, asked her name and complimented us on how pretty it was. And somehow that made the world seem a better place again. 

*In a small Parisian flat, keeping the changing mat away from soft furnishings can be somewhat tricky.