Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Empire Speaks, The Myth Replies: The Communication Gap

The underlying message that I hear in Treasury's press release is that the U.S. government really really wants Americans and Green Card holders abroad to comply with the U.S. worldwide tax and reporting system.

However bizarre it may seem to us and our foreign spouses, friends, co-workers and family, they want those bank account reports and that huge pile of paper (1040 plus all the extra reporting like form 8938 and the FBAR) every year from each and every one of us even if we earn no money in the U.S.,  pay tons of taxes locally and don't owe the United States Treasury one dime in tax.   That means every American and Green Card holder (rich, middle or low-income) from Thailand to Timbuktu, from Paris to Moscow, from Sao Paulo to Mexico City, from Libreville to Casablanca.

They are serious and anyone who thinks they aren't is living in la la land.

But three things that are absolutely essential to the success of the U.S. government's grand project are completely missing from the picture:  information, education and support.

Even today with all the hoopla about FATCA and FBAR's, when I hop the train into Paris I am still meeting newly-arrived Americans who have no idea about the tax and reporting obligations of an American citizen or Green Card holder who lives works, and raises a family outside of the United States.

Call this the future crop of American "tax evaders" who are materializing right before my eyes.  On a scale of 1 - 3,  with 1 being "total ignorance" and 3 being "fully informed and demonstrate a clear understanding of the topic," I'd say that the vast majority are at 1, a small minority are at 3 and a precious few are scattered in the middle.  There are even a few 0's - folks who don't know what they don't  know.  Americans abroad who dismiss the notion of citizenship-based taxation as "a conspiracy theory." (I kid you not).

If one of the U.S. government's goals here is to get Americans abroad into compliance with the U.S. tax system, then how about we look at what could be done about the "communication gap" before we get too excited about the overseas filer "compliance gap"?

To be very clear, I do not agree with citizenship-based taxation or FBARs or FATCA.  However, can we all agree is that it is crucial that Americans and Green Card holders at home and abroad are given clear information about the U.S. worldwide tax system and IRS/Treasury reporting obligations if they live or aspire to live outside the United States?

That obscure little note in the back of every U.S. passport about taxes on worldwide income?  Not good enough.  Only two countries in the world tax their emigrants on their wages and assets in their host countries:  the United States and Eritrea.  Why in heaven's name would an American or Green Card holder abroad, or an immigrant in the U.S., think for two seconds that the United States of America has anything in common with a little country in the Horn of Africa that has been condemned in the United Nations for the same practice of taxing its diaspora?

What is needed is an information campaign that gets the message out to everyone - U.S. citizens, Green Card holders, future Green Card holders and anyone the U.S. government considers to be a "U.S. person/taxpayer" -  all over the world.

But that would be hard and costly!

Nonsense, this is an era of mass communication, the Internet and social media. In addition, there are American organizations and institutions the world over that could help.  Like the State Department and the nearly 300 US Embassies and consulates in the world.  Like the American schools, churches, libraries, missions, VFW halls, Chambers of Commerce and many other places where American communities gather.  And, of course, organizations like American Citizens Abroad, the Associations of Americans Resident Overseas and the Federation of American Women's Clubs Overseas.

But that's not our job!

Again, nonsense.  Robert LeBaube and Charles Vehorn put these three things firmly under the responsibility of all tax administrations:

"1.  To support those citizens who wish to comply with tax laws by making the burden of compliance and payment as light as possible (Adam Smith's third maxim of convenience of payment);
2. to minimize the amount of public and private resources diverted from other uses to ensure that taxes are collected (Adam Smith's fourth maxim of economy in collection;  and
3.  to strive through education to increase the number of willing compliers."

My good people, you are public servants and here is your public standing before you ill-served and desperately needing information that you possess.

Furthermore, you have made it abundantly clear that you expect compliance even where there has been years of ignorance and confusion.  So let's clear up the latter and I just bet that you will find it much easier (and cheaper) to get the former.

Now, I have heard a rumor that all this has been proposed before.  That this very suggestion was made to some of the 3 letter agencies in the homeland and the answer was "no."

As in, "No, we will not communicate widely about worldwide U.S. tax and reporting requirements."

I sincerely hope that is not true.  Stretched thin already, I might lose all my faith in my government and the goodness and goodwill of the people in it, if that really was their response to something so basic, so simple, so commonsensical.

But part of me has to wonder because they have to know (as I do) what the possible repercussions would be:  more renunciations of American citizenship, a drop in people seeking Green Cards, fewer high-skilled immigrants coming to the U.S., and fewer immigrants becoming citizens once everyone understands exactly the global reach of the U.S. tax system.

But if the U.S. government and homeland Americans believe that citizenship-based taxation is a Good Thing and that FATCA has "clear, positive benefits" then these repercussions are irrelevant and they have nothing to fear from making a full disclosure in clear language to each and every U.S. Person (or aspiring one) on this planet.

Have the courage of your convictions and staple that to those shiny new U.S. passports, Green Cards and H1B visas.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Empire Speaks, The Myth Replies

In response to growing criticism of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) the U.S. Treasury published a press release called Myth vs. FATCA: The Truth About Treasury’s Effort To Combat Offshore Tax Evasion.

It's a bit wordy but I encourage you to read it because it is the other side of the argument.  And since we are asking that the U.S. government listen to Americans abroad, it seems only right that we stop and listen to them.  Rebuttals there will be later on in this and tomorrow's post but give them the floor, read the press release, and then take a few moments to really think about what they are saying.

The Good Fight

Right away I found some common ground:  the fight against tax evasion.  I live in France and I'm not amused when I see headlines about some individual living here who stashes money made in France outside of France without paying the taxes that all other residents of France have to pay.  That's not fair.  Furthermore, it's illegal here and in all the countries I've ever lived in including the United States.

People who do that sort of thing will find no friend in me. If the U.S. Department of Justice wants to go after someone from, say, Los Angeles who sneaks a few million out of the country with the intention of avoiding American taxes or money laundering or funding activities like drug and human trafficking, I will be right there cheering them on.

"American abroad" equals "tax evader"?

But where they lose me is when they equate what the criminals are doing with America's emigrants - people who've done nothing nefarious or illegal.  All these people have done is live, work, and raise families outside the United States.  That's about 6-7 million people and their families.  The U.S. government is  drawing a direct line between "Americans abroad" and "tax evaders." This would be laughable if it didn't have such deadly consequences.    Here is what Treasury says:
U.S. taxpayers, including U.S. citizens living abroad, are required to comply with U.S. tax laws​. Individuals that have used offshore accounts to evade tax obligations may rightly fear that FATCA will identify their illicit activities.
It's the Law:  U.S. Tax and Reporting Requirements

The first sentence is absolutely correct.  That is one of the obligations of American citizenship wherever an American may live in the world:
  •  The American au pair with 7,500 Euros in her local French bank account is required to report that account to Treasury.  
  • The American student in Canada who works part time and has a joint bank account in Toronto with his parents that he uses to deposit his paycheck and pay tuition every quarter must report that income and that bank account every year to Treasury and the IRS.  
  • The American stay-at-home mother in Germany is legally obligated to report the joint checking and saving accounts she holds with her German husband.  She also must file U.S. tax returns in some circumstances (sale of joint assets, for example) even if she earns no income and the money never came from the United States and was earned and invested entirely in Europe.  
  • The Indian immigrant who picks up his Green Card at the local U.S. Embassy abroad must start filing reports on the banks accounts in his home country the year that residence permit comes into his hands even if he has not yet moved to the United States.  
All this may seem a bit silly but, yes, Treasury is right that this is the law.  Today many people are working to get that law changed but for now we are stuck with it.

(Unless, of course one decides to no longer be a U.S. citizen or Green Card holder in which case compliance going forward is no longer an issue.  Patrick Weil called this the great weakness of citizenship-based taxation and I have to agree with him.  It is a bit curious that Americans in the homeland are surprised by the renunciations - classic "avoidance protests".  As Barrington Moore once wrote, "through the centuries one of the common man's most frequent and effective responses to oppression has been flight.")

"Illicit activities"

It's the second sentence in that paragraph that I (and many others) really have a problem with. In fact, it's enough to make some of us a bit testy.

Look, of all the activities that I listed in the previous paragraph, I can't see one that is "illicit."  If I add to that list the other things that Americans abroad typically do outside the United States (retire, teach, go to church, play music, write novels, restore an old house, volunteer at the local community center, work at NGO's, teach English to toddlers, run a small business, run a big business) I still don't see anything "illicit" about any of it.

Furthermore, when any of these Americans abroad opened a checking, savings or retirement account, I think it is a real stretch to imply that they opened these "offshore accounts to evade tax obligations."  In fact,  I think I'm on solid ground here when I say that this was probably the last thing on the mind of that American student in Canada, au pair in France, college professor in Israel, or IT worker in India when they moved abroad.

Opening a bank account in the community where one lives is just a normal part of life.  How normal?  Well, just for fun, here is a picture of my "foreign bank" where, according to the U.S. government, I keep my "offshore accounts."


Where is my bank located in relation to me?  Right across the street from my house here in France.

And has the money in those accounts been taxed?  You bet it has.  In fact we were recently audited by the French fisc.  The result?  We overpaid our French taxes the last couple of years and they were kind enough to send us a small check.

Forgive me, but I simply cannot see the linkage between criminal tax evasion and checking/savings accounts in a little branch office of a national bank where the U.S. Person and the account live in the same country and he/she has already paid his or her taxes on that money.   It just seems to defy common sense.

If I had to sum up my stance after reading Treasury's note about FATCA, I'd say it comes down to this:

Right fight, wrong method.

(In tomorrow's post we'll talk about an important, if indirect, message in Treasury's note - the compliance issue.)

The Second Flophouse Wedding

23 years ago today my French spouse and I were married in Paris at Sainte Odile in the 17th.

There were two ceremonies that year.  You can see pictures of the ceremony at the Mayor's office here.

The second wedding was held because we are Roman Catholic and a church wedding was (even though it wasn't legal) the "real" one for us and the family. It was also the one with the really big party.  

I had a "Princess Di" dress - white with lace, a full skirt that was huge and held up by hoops, and a long long veil. My father-in-law was in full uniform with all his decorations and the most extraordinary hat (called a képi). The best man was equally splendid in his French Navy uniform. 

My brother walked me down the aisle but strangely enough I don't remember a darn thing after that until the moment I walked out of the church into the sun and saw one of the flower children - a three year old French cousin carrying a teddy bear - looking up at me like I was a fairy princess come to life. Only time in my life I've ever felt like one. The rest of the day was a whirlwind of activity. There was a ride on a bateau-mouche on the Seine and a dinner with a three-tier wedding cake, the most amazing meal and dancing at the Cercle national des armées. The entire family was there (French and American), all our friends, and one guest of honor: the old friend and bridge partner of my father-in-law, the Emperor Bao Dai.
And here we are in front of the church after the ceremony.  You'll notice that the French Army was in this one (my father-in-law, the Général - also known as Papa and Parrain (godfather)  The Navy, alas, didn't make this picture.

And one more (while I have you).  Someone caught Papa walking down the steps of the church and the expression on his face is one of pure happiness.  I love this one because, unlike the official pictures I've seen where he is stern, serious and the epitome of the polished professional military man,  this one shows the other side:  the bon vivant who loved his wine, his friends and his family (and, yes, that definitely included his American daughter-in-law).





Saturday, September 28, 2013

Why Did You Leave?

"The country where people look like me is the one where I can't speak the language, the country where people sound like me is a place where I like highly alien, and the country where people live like me is the most foreign space of all....  There are more and more people in a similar state, the children of blurred boundaries and global mobility."

Pico Iyer
The Global Soul:  Jet Lag, Shopping Malls and the Search for Home

Every Wednesday  I spend time with an elderly Frenchwoman in my parish.  I go to the noon mass and at the end Father hands me the Eucharist in a little gold box called a custode.  I then head over to see Madame G - to pray and to give her communion.  We always sit and talk after the main event.  It is an honor to do this for her and for the parish and, believe me, any good I'm doing her is equal to the good she does for me.

Just before I met her she fell at home one day hard and had to be taken to the hospital for stitches.  That changed her world.  I'm not 90 so I can't put myself entirely in her shoes but, having had my body betray me last year, I can surely empathize.  Our worlds shrank and that is a terrible feeling when one is used to being out and about (or hopping on an airplane on a whim).

This time she asked me about my children, the Frenchlings.  She wanted to know why they were in Canada and not in France.  Ah, that old question that keeps coming up over and over again: "Why did you/they leave us?"  It wasn't an accusation, it was a plea for understanding.

Nonetheless, sometimes that question really irritates me.  There are short answers which are glib and incomplete (and that we tailor carefully depending on who is asking the question) and there are long answers which usually have people's eyes glazing over after a few minutes.

Here's a secret:  almost every long-term migrant struggles to answer that question for him or herself.  Why is it a struggle?  Because the answer changes over time - the reasons one had for leaving at 20 are not necessarily the same as the reasons one has at 50.

Back in 2011 I wrote a post called "Casting Errors" which was my attempt at the time to try and find a general answer to that question for myself.  Re-reading it two years later I find that it is not entirely satisfactory but  it still represents my best effort.  So I offer it to you again - what I would have liked to have said to Madame G.    

Casting Errors

There is a strange phenomenon that I come across every once in awhile that makes me wonder if the universe really is benevolent.  All of us come into the world having had certain choices made for us:  our place of birth, our parents, our nationality, our first language and the very first culture we are exposed to.  This is all pure chance;  our very existence is the culmination of a series of events over which we have no control.  Sometimes, it seems to me, this cosmic crapshoot leads to a number of casting errors.

I'm talking about people I meet who I think are horribly out of sync with their culture of origin.  These are not necessarily rebels - on the contrary many of them go to extraordinary lengths to try to fit, but they don't.     The people around them are singing in the key of C but everything in their hearts wants to sing in C#.    It's not about political opinions or economic advancement or marrying the right person. I'm not talking about people with mental health problems either.  It's really more fundamental - something about their essence, character or basic personality just doesn't work in the world in which they have emerged.  They are out of tune and every single day of their lives they are confronted with a sense that there is something wrong with them.  This can lead to belligerent resentment or just discreet misery.

I've met people like this in all the countries I've visited or lived in.  People who are vaguely discontent, openly unhappy, quietly desperate or not at all "at home" where they are even if they were born there.  Most never consider that they might have other options - the world we are born into is, as far as most of us are concerned, the whole world.  Intellectually, we may be vaguely aware that people in other places do things differently, but we are not convinced that people elsewhere have radically different ways of thinking. Ways that are not better or worse than those of our home culture but they just might be a good fit if we ever dared to try them on for size.

It is so hard to take that mental leap.  It requires what in Zen is called a "beginner's mind," one that is open to all possibilities.  Just because we were born here or there, citizen of X or Y, does not mean that this is the best place, the right language, or the appropriate culture for us.  Whether we are happy or unhappy, at home or not in our culture of origin, until we open ourselves to the idea that there are other worlds that might suit us better, we are all captive nations whatever our nationality or culture of origin may be.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The BBC: Why Americans are Renouncing U.S. Citizenship

OK, our collective time out is over now.

The lead story today at the BBC's News Magazine is The ex-Americans: Why people are renouncing US citizenship by Tom Geoghegan reporting from Washington, D.C.

Full disclosure:  I am one of those interviewed for the story.  In all honesty this sort of thing scares the hell out of me.  It feels like I'm putting my neck on the block and waiting for Madame Guillotine to fall.

It came down to this for me:  I could go out quietly by simply relinquishing my U.S. passport  (I am so far under the threshold for the U.S. exit tax, it makes me wonder how I will ever retire) or I could stand and fight.  What made me choose the latter?  All the other people who are out there telling their stories, commenting on on-line articles, writing their Congressional representatives and now demonstrating.  If they can be that brave, I said to myself, so can I.

As individuals, we are not much - most of us aren't important or rich or have great connections - but together every little thing we do adds up to something pretty powerful.  The buzzing is now loud enough that Public Radio International, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and now the BBC, are taking notice.

I got an anonymous letter in the mail yesterday from someone facing the very same dilemma that I, you, and so many Americans abroad are struggling with. It was a beautiful letter and I am so grateful to the person who sent it.  This person expressed his/her feelings so poignantly that I read and re-read it several times.

I think the final paragraph will resonate with many of us and so I give you his/her words as an end to today's post:
"I have lived long enough in a foreign land to lose any illusions about another culture being "better."  Different?  Yes.  I still do love America.  I hate the trip but I love being home.  If I had to renounce my American citizenship, I would flood the consulate with my tears."

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Lighter Side of Tax Law

I'm not sure that I have properly expressed my respect and admiration for Phil Hodgen and his fine international tax blog.  Today is a good day to rectify that.

Cross-border tax experts are not looked upon favorably in my world.  They are expensive.  They don't speak English.  They are lawyers.

Phil Hodgen is a lawyer but unlike many of his confrères he is clear, interesting and funny.  Reading Hodgen is almost as good as going to an AA meeting (a place that, surprisingly enough, often resembles a comedy club).  His humor can be just as dark and irreverent.

In this missive Tax Law is Considered Harmful (hat tip to Just Me),  Hodgen invites us to lighten up.  Yes, American tax law is frequently dumb and has all kinds of perverse outcomes, but it was made by fallible men and women over centuries and is a product of history and culture.  Like culture it is a conversation between the living and the dead.  (Yes, the dead speak through the law which makes lawyers a lot like necromancers.)

 "Tax law, he says, " is written by 10,000 authors of wildly varying intelligence and intention. Different pieces were written at different times — sometimes decades apart.

Hodgen compares the writing of the U.S. tax code to how the Bible was written and it's a good metaphor. (Yes, I am a Roman Catholic but I do have a sense of humor and I suspect our new pope is not lacking in that regard either.)  Let's face it, in human hands, even something as pure as the Divine Will gets muddled over the course of 2000+ years.   Though, as Christians, we do believe that God stepped in and kept his servants from doing too poor a job of it.  Pity the poor American tax lawyer who has only the IRS as his Higher Power.  

So tax law is firmly in the City of Man and we all know what Saint Augustine had to say about that place.

Hodgen's conclusion?  "In short, don’t take tax law too seriously. Gently laugh at the whole system and treat it as a game or an elaborately authored work of fiction."

Yes, Maître Hodgen, your point is well taken.  And I will take it.  Just for today.

But tomorrow is another story because Saint Augustine, while trying to pull us up toward the City of God, had this to say about the City of Man and justice:

“Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms?”

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Portraits of American Women Abroad

“Women have to harness their power – it’s absolutely true. It’s just learning not to take the first no. And if you can’t go straight ahead, you go around the corner.”

Cher 

The American diaspora is stirring.  Thanks to the homeland government we are waking up and taking action.  And did anyone notice that women are on the front lines?  The very first anti-FATCA demonstration was Two Moms in Tennis Shoes in Canada.  Lynne Swanson is becoming a powerful voice through her articles which are being published far and wide.  Jackie Bugnion, the ACA president, is everywhere it seems educating and advocating.

Go to any site talking about issues affecting Americans abroad and you will see the women speaking out, putting their ideas on the table and organizing action.

The battle we are fighting today over taxation can be seen as a continuation of that long war that Americans abroad have been fighting for recognition - for the moral (not just legal) right to emigrate and be a part of a globalized world while retaining an American identity wherever they may live.  

There have been some truly remarkable women in this fight - women whose names are not well known in the American communities abroad today.  But we should know them.  Not just to honor their actions in the past, but to inspire us now.  

I can think of no better place to begin than a book that arrived in my mailbox from Germany the other day.  It's called Beyond Borders:  Portraits of American Women from Around the World.  
Beyond Borders contains a collection of portraits and stories about cultural identity, about being an American woman in a world that has lost its belief in the good will of the United States, about the power to go beyond borders and make things happen, and about the necessary sacrifices and well-deserved triumphs along the way.
In it you will meet 30 American women living in 15 countries who made and are still making a difference in their home and host countries.  These are ordinary women who have done extraordinary things:  Jean Darling (Ireland), Yuzana Khin (Thailand), Gillian McGuire (Italy), Kim Powell, (France), Lucy Laederich  (France), Marcia Brittain (Uruguay),  and Jane Cabanyes (Spain) to name just a few.  The book came out of a FAWCO (Federation of American Women's Clubs Overseas) project and is the work of two members:  My-Linh Kunst (photography) and Charlotte Fox Zabusky. 

I finished the book in one sitting and then I sat at my dining room table and cried.  Nearly 20 years abroad now - some successful, some fraught with loneliness and grief - and this is the first time I have ever seen American women abroad portrayed so positively.

It's worth pointing out here that these women are migrants.  They all left the United States at one time or another and cast themselves upon distant shores.  Their reasons for leaving were as diverse as the countries they now call home but what they share is the migration experience.  

Migration is not gender-neutral.  What can be said of all women migrants from all countries and that includes developed countries like the United States is that they are not treated equally when they choose to leave their home countries and they are not treated the same in their country of destination where they are both women and foreigners.  

Host country immigration laws and policies are often tailored to the "average" migrant who is presumed to be young and male.  As for the home country, women are all too often afterthoughts in the making and implementation of emigrant/emigration policies (citizenship, voting, taxation, family reunification) coming out of the homeland.  An American woman married to a foreign national who loses access to a joint bank account in her host country because of homeland laws and policies is (at best) said to be "inconvenienced" or (at worst) told that she is only getting what she deserved because she had the temerity to marry a foreigner and live in his country.

None of this is new.  When Phyllis Michaux, founder of AAWE and AARO, went to Washington, D.C. in 1971 to fight for citizenship for the children born abroad to Americans abroad, she met with General Counsel Charles Gordon and his staff:
There I was, facing four empowered officials.  They were not necessarily hostile but were obviously in authority.  Gordon said magnanimously, 'Now, I wouldn't want you to think that your government does not want to listen to you.'  Another, more sharply, asked, 'Why don't these women come home to have their babies?'"
Mes amies, the foundation of what we do today was laid long ago.  We are standing on the shoulders of great women.  Where we go from here is up to us but as I look around me today and see so many dedicated, talented, passionate, powerful women working for change, I am optimistic that we are up to the challenge.  

“A woman is like a tea bag: you cannot tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Flophouse and the Roseraie

Contempt before investigation will sink you every time.

Yesterday we invited the neighbors over for an early evening before dinner drink (what we call at the Flophouse the Coca-Kir hour).  Great people, good conversation, nice wine (cola for me) and my mother's diabolically good deviled eggs.

At some point in the soiree the neighbors asked about our future projects.  And that was how the conversation turned to the difficulties we are having getting permission to change the front gate. Our neighbors have been living in this part of town for nearly 40 years so they were the right people to ask.

They wanted to see what we had in mind for the gate and the fence and so I pulled out the thick file we got back from the Mayor's office to show them the picture and the letter.  Our neighbors liked what we had in mind - we had selected something very conservative and very "Versailles" - and they heartily approved with one minor change.

The letter my neighbor read out loud and it was then that I heard a sentence that I had surely read before but hadn't really understood:
Cette maison fait partie de l'ancienne pépinière de la Roseraie et constitue à ce titre une partie des pavillons qui bordaient cette rue.
(This house is part of the old Roseraie nursery and as such is a part of the houses along that street.)
So it's not just about being close to the castle or the Pavillon de Musique or the Octrois.  This house - our little 1929 not-in-such-great-shape brick house - is something they think is worth protecting and preserving.   It is a part of Versailles history in some way that I was not aware of.

As soon as the neighbors left I went looking for answers.  I hauled out all my books about Versailles and with elements I gleaned from them I did a web search and read late into the night.  Here's what I found out.

Once upon a time there was a family called Truffaut. They were horticulturalists and created a company in 1897 called Les Etablissements G. Truffaut in Versailles.  The company grew and in 1906 they moved their offices, factories and laboratories to Porchefontaine.  This little out of the way neighborhood in Versailles wasn't always the sleepy little community we know today - it was a place bustling with activity and commerce and Truffaut's was a large part of it.  Here is a description of their facilities on the Avenue de Paris in the early part of the 20th century:
On y trouve les bureaux de comptabilité, des services spéciaux de la revue JARDINAGE, les bureaux de commande des engrais, de la quincaillerie et de librairie pour la partie administrative et les laboratoires, les serres, les jardins d’expériences avec la Roseraie pour la partie technique.
(There were the accounting offices, the special services for their gardening magazine, the offices for ordering fertilizer, hardware and office supplies for the company administrative and research facilities, greenhouses and the show gardens along with the Rosaraie for the technical side.)
What was the Roseraie and why was it important enough to be mentioned in our letter from the architect des Batiments de France?

It was an immense garden in the style of Louis XVI with huge beds and thousands of different kinds of flowers.  Built by George Truffaut on a hectare of land between the train tracks and the avenue de Paris, it had greenhouses, nurseries, laboratories, a French garden complete with fountains and an English garden with pools for aquatic plants fed by a little creek called the ru de la Patte d'Oie.  At its height it was amazing and people came from all over France, from other parts of Europe and even from as far away as Australia to view it.  From the book Sept siecles de l'histoire du quartier de Porchefontaine:
Dans ces jardins, ouverts au public, les expositions des fleurs sont un veritable enchantement.  Lors du festival floral, certaines années, un million de bulbes de tulipes sont plantés.  Leur floraison en mai est une marveille, puis en juin des milliers de rosiers fleurissent a leur tour, offrant un spectacle inoubliable.
(In these gardens, open to the public, the flower exhibitions are a true delight. At the floral festival, in some years, a million tulip bulbs are planted. Their blooming in May is a marvel and in June thousands of roses bloom in their turn, offering an unforgettable spectacle.)
In 1929 when the owner/builder of our house looked over the back wall this is what he saw:

http://www.truffaut.com/histoire-truffaut/Pages/etablissements.aspx
And here is another view courtesy of Tim:


This map from 1954 shows the exact location of the gardens in Porchefontaine and where the creek used to run.  Our house is in the small square tucked into the corner of the avenue de Paris and the rue de Porchefontaine.


36 years later in 1965 the Truffaut's closed the gardens and sold the property.  The land was bought by a development company and they built very stylish apartment complex called La Roseraie.  The buildings were placed in such a way to keep a large garden in the center for the enjoyment of the inhabitants but nothing like what existed before.

The irony here is Truffaut still has 58 garden centers in France  with one in Chesnay near the Velizy shopping center.  That is where we usually go to buy plants, fertilizer and garden tools.  I even have a fidelity card.  That there was a connection between the Flophouse garden and Truffaut (past and present) was a very pleasant surprise. 

As I write this post I find that although I now understand the history much better, I still have many questions:  Who built this house and was there a direct connection between it and the Truffaut gardens?   Was it perhaps built for someone who worked for the Truffaut's?  There is another old house on our street that is bigger than ours but also has interesting distinctive architecture - were they built at the same time for the same reasons?  Where is the old creek that used to run between our house and the railroad tracks?  What did my house look like when it was built?  Could we find a picture of the original gate and grille?  And above all I would really like to know why the Truffaut's left Versailles and why someone didn't step in to save the gardens back in 1965.

I'll be looking into it further but I have learned an important lesson.  To my father's saying "government regulation sent you to college, Victoria," I would add:  Sometimes regulations that look stupid and bureaucratic are to prevent ignorant people like me from doing dumb things.  

Looks like I owe an apology to the architectes des bâtiments de France. 

As of this morning we are, as they say here, "en phase."

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Flophouse House & Garden Fall Projects


"A house is not a home unless it contains food and fire for the mind as well as the body."

Benjamin Franklin

Did I ever tell you the story about how we bought our little house in Versailles?  We'd been living in this city ever since we came back to France from Japan. At the time my spouse and I were working at the same company (Dassault) and since they had plans to move their headquarters from Suresnes (a city on the outskirts of Paris) to Vélizy it made sense to find an apartment close by.  So we did and we lived happily there for many years.

A few years, a couple of jobs, and a life-threatening illness later we were walking in the neighborhood near the Porchefontaine train station and saw that a little house that had been sold a few months prior was back on the market.  We'd been kicking around the idea of finally buying something after 25 years of renting and this one looked interesting.  It also looked affordable.  A little cottage in the "cheap seats" of Versailles that was so run down that the previous buyer (according to the real estate agent that sale fell through because he could not prove that his money from Russia was "clean") planned to tear it down.

We fell in love.  Yes, it was small (55 square meters/592 square feet), and run down (ancient peeling wallpaper, ugly carpet, cracks in the windows, cracks in the walls, water damage, not-at-all-to-code wiring and asbestos).  But looking past these things we could see pine floors, old chandeliers, crown molding and all sorts of other features that made us think that it could be charming and beautiful if someone gave it a little love.  And there was the garden, of course, which was twice the size of the house.  

We (one Frenchling, two adults and two cats - race "European" which means "mutt")  moved in December of 2012.  Today in the latter part of 2013 we are still in love with the house though our family pocketbook has been lightened considerably. And it is everything we had hoped for-not any bigger mind you, but it is cozy.  One of my friends from church calls it, "La maison de blanche neige et les 7 nains."

And we still have a long long list of projects (stuff that must be fixed and stuff we'd like to have fixed if we can afford it).  Now that we are back home after our extended vacation to the exotic world of the Pacific Northwest in North America we are once again working on the house.  Here is the progress we've made:

The Petit Godin:   Godin came by on Monday and installed the wood stove.  It is magnificent.  You can read here about our quest for the perfect French "poele" and here is a picture of ours in the living room.  We just have to wait until the sealant is completely dry before we can make a fire.



Basement/cellar:  Basement has a laundry area and two small rooms that we turned into a bedroom and a study.  Both have been useable since last year if you are short - anyone over 6 feet/1.8 meters is going to get hurt by the low ceiling and beams.  We couldn't make the rooms taller but we could make them pleasant.  Here is what the study looked like when we moved in:


And here's what it looks like after a week of stripping ancient moldy wallpaper (three layers), plastering and painting.


Last week the plumber came and moved one of the old radiators from the first floor to this room right under the window.  So not only does the Flophouse now have a guest room but it has heat.  Ok it's not exactly this but it's warm and bright and has a futon.  The laundry area is right next door so you can even fall asleep to the sound of our ancient dryer rumbling and tumbling in the night.  Just think of it, mes amis, as the "authentic Versailles experience."  And really, what more could any guest ask for in a free room....

Garden:  For those who were kind enough to ask, I am pleased to report that my spouse did not kill the garden.  On the contrary, it was a jungle out there when I got back - weeds like water too.  But there were still a few flowers and vegetables.  We are drowning in tomatoes.  Before leaving the premises all visitors must take a bag of homegrown tomatoes - our very own Flophouse octroi. We also have pumpkins. These I am keeping to make Jack-o'-lanterns, pie and soup.



My parents arrived earlier this week from Amsterdam - my father's annual pilgrimage to the International Broadcasting Convention.  Since "idle hands are the devil's work" we have shanghaied them into helping us cross a few projects off our list.  Right now Mom and I are concentrating on taking out the diseased juniper on the right hand side of the back garden.  


We are generating a mountain of "clean green" and wood for the new wood stove.  How cool is that?

As I have been writing for this blog my mother has been writing for her friends back in Seattle. I will leave you now (it's market day) with one of her notes and her report on our lovely little house (aka "money sink") and its projects.  She called it "Why Juniper Sucks."

"So here we are here in Victoria and JM's lovely new (old) house in Versailles, An excellent example of a well designed, comfortable and very functional small house. They did the smart thing and figured out how much work needed to be done BEFORE they moved in and they hired a really good contractor to do it. (On time and budget, a bit envious after my elegant but behind schedule and way over budget stair project.) As with far too many houses inhabited by old widow ladies it was a mess of bad repair decisions and horrendous amounts of deferred maintenance. And there is still (isn't there just always?) more to be done but the big messy stuff is behind them.

 The garden was truly horrible. It was possible to see the bones installed by a good gardener so Victoria has been careful to preserve much of it but sometimes removal is the only way to go, bringing us to the hideous use of juniper as hedge material so beloved by the suburban gardener. It really wants to be a tree so it's a bad choice for a average sized city garden and the damn stuff tends to turn up its little green toes - generally somewhere in the middle of a hedge row - leaving a nasty hole. It's susceptible to root rot, just one of the things that kill it - one of the MANY things actually. So out it goes. The most hideous mess was removed just after they moved in, we are now tackling the rest of it. Since stacking a lot of plant material in JM's really nice company car seems ill-advised we are taking the longer approach- putting out the maximum amount of "clean green" for each pickup. It goes slowly but the damn thing is coming out. We progress.

A really sucky thing, with all the best intentions, is the historic district designation. Nothing whatsoever can be done to the exterior without approval. So, as we move to refreshing the trim paint on this stone house we can't lift a sanding block without submitting a proposal (five copies) for the exact color and type and a visit from two city departments, any contractors involved, all on site at the same time - imagine trying to get that organized. Then you actually do the work and then arrange at least one inspection. If we all threw ourselves into it we could knock out most of the work in a long weekend but not this trip. It takes months as you might imagine. 

The quandary of the moment is the front gate- not lovely when new, it is considerable less so after the city's street work undermined one of the posts (before JM and Victoria's purchase) and no amount of tweaking is fixing the scraping that attends actually trying to open the damn thing- it is a mess of rust and it could be a better color but no, no, no- approval is required.  Ok, we all get why historic structures need to be protected but the gate was installed around 1960. Heads are being scratched about the political implications of pointing this out to the city's historic PC cops. Apparently they canvas the neighborhoods on scooters looking for criminals attempting to paint houses without permission. Paperwork has been submitted for the gate including detailed drawings (five copies) and we wait. Makes the vagaries and general whimsey of Seattle's zoning department seem like reading Dick and Jane. "

Friday, September 20, 2013

Dual Citizens in a Secular Society

"Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord..."

St. Augustine
The City of God

Every Christian is a dual citizen:  he belongs to a "City of Man" and a "City of God."  In both Canada and Europe today there are arguments about the extent to which religious people of all faiths are permitted to openly signal their membership in God's city.

 The example before us today is the Parti Québécois’s Charter of Quebec Values.  This measure would forbid public servants (government workers) from wearing "ostentatious" religious symbols while carrying out their functions.  The argument of the Charter's supporters is that this is necessary to reinforce the state's neutrality with regard to religion:
"cette charte de la laïcité visera notamment à interdire les signes religieux ostentatoires dans la fonction publique, c’est-à-dire que les institutions publiques et les agents travaillant dans ces institutions doivent refléter la neutralité de l’État."
This has provoked a bitter public debate.  My purpose here is not to add to the very good commentary about this charter one can find in any number of on and off-line articles.  (For a good round-up  of what has been said so far about the charter, see Andrew Griffith's fine blog Multicultural Meanderings.)  Instead I would like to broaden the discussion and talk about general efforts in some parts of the world to create (or reinforce) what is referred to as a "secular" society - an ideal world (some say) where religious beliefs no longer have a place in the public sphere and where, as Peter Berger puts it, "signals of transcendence" become rumors, "and not very reputable rumors at that."  

To many Europeans and Canadians (and even some Americans) this is a worthy goal and, in Europe at least, it has been moderately successful.  The recent battles over marriage in France notwithstanding, religious beliefs have much less voice in the public sphere than they had in times past.  It is worth pointing out, however, that when one looks around the world, there is a sort of European exceptionalism at work here.  In many parts of the world  (and especially in the Global South) religious beliefs are part and parcel of the public conversation on all issues and religious affiliation is growing, not shrinking.  Efforts by the Global North to convince such places that they must become less religious in order to become more modern are generally met with skepticism, if not outright contempt. 

Even more interesting is that there is another on-going debate within the world community of Christians (and this one began centuries ago) over the extent to which Christians should be involved in the earthly city and use their faith-based beliefs to weigh in on the pressing social issues of our time. A passion for politics is a passion for things of this world which Christians are asked to think of as transient and inferior to the city of God. Some argue for disengagement - leave Caesar to Caesar. As for signaling one's citizenship in the Heavenly City there is a line of thought that believes that this is a futile exercise. Religious beliefs are best spread by example (or as AA puts it) they prefer attraction to promotion.  A few even believe that complete separation is necessary in order for believers to avoid the taint of their secular neighbors and compatriots.  The last implies a certain common ground between the most rabid of the secularists and their fundamentalist Christian counterparts.

Most people of faith (whatever their affiliation) are not separatists.  Christians, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus, and all other people of faith who end up in countries where the secular society is taking on the aura of a national project, have to struggle with this daily.  How open can one be about the sources of one's opinions if they are faith-based?  What kinds of religious signals are allowed - not only by law - but within a particular cultural context?    These questions are particularly challenging to those who belong to a minority religion practiced by immigrants or their children.  It is, however, not confined to them.  I am a Roman Catholic in a country that has traditionally been a "daughter of the Church" and even I thought twice before placing a small discreet statue of Mary in the niche on my front porch where it is visible from the street.

This is the "freedom of conscience" touted by democracies like France and Canada?   

This is not about separation of church and state - something that most established churches have discovered works quite well in their favor.  This is a purging of religious discourse and signs from the marketplace of ideas.  What is even more disturbing to me is that in the Global North we live in a context of religious pluralism.  The days when one church or one religion spoke with one institutional voice, controlled the message from the faithful, and were synonymous with the local culture and government are long behind us.  Instead what we see is that these "twin tolerations" (Alfred Stepan) have led to the empowerment of the faithful to speak as individuals and to participate as they see fit in the "City of Man" - the political community in which they reside or in the world.

I believe that the ideal secular society as proposed by some would be an impoverished one.  Even worse, I see a sort of separatism being forced on people of faith who for want of public spaces to express themselves, retreat to their communities, churches/mosques/temples, schools and homes, and let the earthly realm (one that does not seem to value their opinion and strongly condemns the source of them) sort itself out without them.

Furthermore, the attempt to generously allow some religious signs and activities to proceed under the umbrella of "tradition" is one that I am hardly thankful for (even where it graciously permits discreet expression of my religious tradition).  It is a hollowing out, a capture of religion and its symbols, in the name of a national culture, ideology or state.   A cathedral in Montreal is not just another pretty example of local architecture, and a baptism in France is not just a quaint little French custom and an excuse for a family party.  These things are part and parcel of a world religion (among others) which transcends borders and culture.  There is nothing particularly French or Quebecois about Catholicism just as there is nothing strictly American or British about Protestantism, or Indonesian or Saudi Arabian about Islam.

Sending people of faith into internal exile or placing them outside of the plausible public discourses is not a solution to what ails Europe or Canada.  On the contrary there is something very ugly and repressive (dare I say "predatory"?) in making  European or Canadian secular identities the only acceptable basis for conversation (speech and signs) in the public sphere in democratic societies.

Some of us feel called to be dual citizens of the "City of God" and the "City of Man."  Our membership in one should never make us inferior citizens in the other.
  

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Mise au Point: Un passeport américain encombrant d'un point de vue fiscal

This is the first news program I've seen in French that looks at the personal stories behind the renunciations of American citizenship in response to FATCA.  The video was produced by Swiss news but everything in it applies to American citizens, Green Card holders  and  "Accidental Americans" living in the EU even those who think they are exclusively French, German, Belgian or British citizens.

What is truly extraordinary here is people are so angry and afraid that they are overcoming their fear and are willing to go public - to be interviewed by radio, TV, print and on-line newspapers and to use their real names.  Takes a great deal of courage to do that and I am personally deeply grateful to each and every one of them for coming out.

And a special thanks to Jackie Bugnion, the president of ACA, for her work.  In this video you can see just how fine an advocate she is for us on this issue.

(Having some trouble embedding the video, so if you can't get it to work on the Flophouse, here is a direct link)




Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Swedish Citizen Pays His Annual Tribute to the U.S.

La rentrée (back to school season) has a special meaning for those of us who are considered "U.S. Persons" by the government of the United States of America.

For those of you not in the know, October 15 is the last deadline for U.S. Persons to file their tax returns with the U.S. government.

What exactly is a "U.S. Person"?  Some people think it is synonymous with U.S. citizen and they are partially correct.  A U.S. Person can be a U.S. citizen but it's also a Green Card Holder or the citizen of another country with a connection to the U.S.  

What do all U.S. Persons have in common?  They are all subject to the worldwide tax and reporting requirements of the American Treasury Department and Internal Revenue Service (le fisc).  That means that wherever they are they must file tax returns, foreign bank accounts reports and pay taxes to the United States.   Yes, you heard right, U.S. Persons must file and pay U.S. taxes even if they live, work and raise families outside the U.S., and their income was entirely earned and invested abroad. This is true even if they aren't U.S. citizens.

What does a U.S. Person look like?   According to some lawmakers in the U.S., and even the American public back in the beloved homeland, U.S. Persons living outside the U.S. are:  yacht-owning jet-setters swathed in mink and dripping with diamonds who spend their days drinking champagne in Monaco or Sao Paulo chortling over their good fortune at the expense of the poor homeland American.

I and the other middle and lower-income U.S. Persons I know must be doing something wrong here.  We seemed to have missed the memo that said that only rich Americans are allowed to live abroad.  I guess that globalization is supposed to be a closed club and ordinary Americans need not apply for membership.  I had no idea.

As for those U.S. Persons who are so fortunate to have a connection to the U.S., well, these folks are clearly in the wrong because they don't choose to forsake their home countries, move to the U.S. and become regular homeland Americans (one of the captive citizens I described in the previous paragraph).    The American government seems to think that this ingratitude should be punished in some way.  I think it's safe to say that the French, Canadians, Germans, Brits and other nationalities I've talked to aren't really on board with that.

Today I'd like to introduce you to Swedish Citizen.  He's not only a U.S. Person but he's a real person, not a stereotype.  I know he's real because I've met him (and many others in my travels).  Here's his picture:


How would I describe him?  Let me be very American here and say, "Nice guy."  Fun and funny.  Gutsy, too.  Firmly in the beer drinker category (hardly a swiller of champagne).  He's a Swedish (EU) citizen.

We have a lot in common and not just because we have to file U.S. tax returns.  However, that is one of our pressing concerns right now.  I'm working on mine and Swedish citizen is working on his.  He's almost done and he was kind enough to pass along a picture of his efforts.

This, mes amis, is what the U.S. tax return of a U.S. Person living abroad who earns no income in the United States looks like:


Daunting, isn't it?  And I can assure you that mine looks very similar.

But do you know what the worst part of this annual exercise is?  Above and beyond the time, the stress, the frustration and all those dead trees sacrificed to create this monstrosity?

Nobody wins here.  Nobody.

Not the U.S. Person abroad who in 80-90% of the cases will not owe any tax to the United States.

Not the IRS who must waste their time wading through these complex returns most of which return no revenue whatsoever to the U.S. Treasury.  The resources they allocate to manage the Overseas Compliance Dance are resources that could have been used to seek out the true tax evaders - those who live in the U.S. and illegally park their money in offshore accounts to evade U.S. tax.

Not the people of the United States of America who are paying for the public servants who must process all this and who will see nothing from this activity.  No revenue for better schools, better roads, and it sure won't lower their tax burdens.

On the contrary, in the event that ALL U.S. Persons abroad become compliant tomorrow (6-7 million American citizens abroad, and an unknown number of Green Card holders in the U.S. and non-US citizens with a connection to the U.S.), it is quite likely that the American taxpayer would actually be paying out more money in government administrative costs just in order to keep this very expensive dance going.   He will be paying solely for the privilege of seeing public servants push Swedish Citizen's paper around while doing the rhumba.

I invite you to think of it this way:  We are all paying a lot of money to go to a bad party and no one is better off for having showed up.

May I make a modest suggestion?

How about we stop the music, get everybody off the dance floor, and sit down and talk about this?

I'll buy the beer.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Cultural Dilemmas: It's the Small Stuff

We are back in Versailles restarting the dormant house and garden projects we put on hold while we were in North America.

On project in particular is giving us headaches.  The gate to the front courtyard is in terrible condition and the enclosure on both sides is so ugly that it's embarrassing.  We live on a very busy street with lots of traffic (locals walking to the train station and tourists walking up from the campground on the way to  see the chastel.)  How bad is it?  Judge for yourself.



Two issues here - one is about aesthetics and the other is about security.  The first is not entirely up to us and we have filed the paperwork to get the agreement of the city and the architect de France to do something about it  Because we live in a city with many national monuments we must have their approval to do anything however minor.  This is true even though the house itself is not a stunning example of Versailles architecture (it was built in 1929).   They have replied and are more or less favorable with conditions and I will go into those in another post.  Let's just say that we are getting quotes from contractors to do the work and whether or not it will happen depends entirely on our budget.  We may only have enough to do the gate (which they want us to reproduce with a custom-made metal gate that is identique to the original one.)

Security is another matter.  This gate which was probably installed in the 1960's, is so old that it has holes in it and no longer locks.  Anyone can walk into the courtyard.  It's never happened but this is an area with a lot of burglaries and all the other houses have gates that lock....

Those are the broad outlines of the story.  What is interesting to me is how I feel about it.

I'm from North America (Seattle) where it is perfectly normal not to enclose the front yard or have a front gate that locks.  This is public space and so what if someone can walk up and ring the doorbell or look in the front window?  In fact there are all sorts of connotations to gates in my culture - like "gated community," for example.  There is something a bit pretentious, even antisocial, about putting up a fence and locking people out.  The message can be interpreted as, "I don't know you, I don't want to know you or be a part of this neighborhood."  So I'm ambivalent about this project because that's not a message I want to send.  I like my neighbors. A lot.  In fact I wish I saw more of them.

But this is France and it's perfectly OK to do this.  In fact my neighbors would be greatly relieved to get this eyesore removed.  No one here is going to think I don't want t be part of the community just because I have a pretty gate that locks and some privacy for my front garden.

But it still bothers me.  There are two completely different set of cultural values at war with each other in my head.  And it's causing a certain amount of anxiety because any way I look at it I will be "wrong" because the North American values and the French ones have equal space in my head.  Both are powerful cultures capable of very strong (and long-lasting) conditioning.

Nearly 20 years of being a migrant and I still don't have an answer when this happens.

That's the power of culture to mold and shape us.

Friday, September 13, 2013

A Global Social Network of Outrage and Action

On September 9, 2013 two members of the Isaac Brock Society led a FATCA protest in front of a press conference held by the Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.



The two Brockers, AtticusInCanada and WhiteKat, held up up signs like "FATCA:  Sequel to the War of 1812" and  "U.S. Bully Violates Canada's Charter."

For those of you who don't know U.S./Canadian history the War of 1812 was a war between Canada (Great Britain) and the United States.  Many believe that the its aim was to annex Canada to the U.S.  That clearly didn't happen and British troops managed to get far enough south to burn Washington, D.C. in 1814.  Not the U.S.'s finest hour.

But Canadians remember and that's why the words on that sign were well chosen and struck a chord with their compatriots.  The two Brockers also passed out leaflets, engaged people passing by, and talked to reporters.  You can read more about it here at the Isaac Brock Society.

Why was this protest so significant?  Because it was the very first one and to understand what makes it such a milestone you have to go back and look at what has been happening over the past 2 years.

The Origins of the Isaac Brock Society:  When Peter Dunn started the Isaac Brock Society in 2011 Americans, ex-Americans and Green Card holders abroad were waking up to a nightmare.  Here was this law passed in 2010 and signed by Obama called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA).  Ostensibly passed to catch "rich tax evaders" it started to become very clear that there were consequences and adverse impacts on "minnows" (middle and lower-income people).   People all around the world wanted to know more. "Does this new law impact me in my country?" they asked. And they weren't getting satisfactory answers.

Peter Dunn, a native Alaskan living in Canada, tried to get people talking about it on another forum and was censored and then kicked out for his trouble.  He went on to form his own website called The Isaac Brock Society.  (Another history lesson here - Isaac Brock was a British army officer who gave his life in defense of Canada in the War of 1812.)  Peter invited people from all over the world to come and have an anonymous, uncensored conversation about it.

Fear, Policy Laundering and Exploitation by "Experts":  How can I best explain the atmosphere back then?  A "state of fear" describes it perfectly.  Stories were circulating all over the world of Americans abroad and their families facing banking problems and paying outrageous fines when they sought to become compliant.

It was almost impossible to get a straight answer to any question.  The IRS websites were so poorly written and confusing that people were more confused after reading Publication X, Y, Z.  Local governments in and outside the U.S. were refusing to answer their constituents' questions about what FATCA meant for them. The "public" forums on FATCA were few and far between and were meant for the banks, international tax lawyers and accountants, and government policy makers - not regular people who had to fight just to get in to listen (they were not allowed to speak).

The cross-border tax experts were not much help either.  Nobody seemed to be getting the same answer to the same question - everything seemed to depend on who you talked to that day. Some people got very bad advice and found themselves even worse off and facing financial ruin because of their "experts."  Even the IRS Taxpayer Advocate Service in the U.S. started to raise flags and reported to the U.S. Congress that the situation was and continues to be deeply troubling.

Shame, Secrecy and the Wall of Fear:  But the worst part was the shame and the secrecy.  People read the IRS website and felt dumb because they didn't understand it or the language of the accountants and lawyers. How many people sitting at home in splendid isolation slapped hand to forehead and said, "How did this happen and how could I have been missed this?"  Insofar as people understood that renunciation was possible, it was still a taboo subject that no one ever talked about and any attempt to broach it was all too often met with a sharp, "Don't be silly.  No one ever gives up US citizenship."

How to do it was shrouded in mystery and folks were afraid to ask.

A Social Network:  Isaac Brock gave these people what they needed:  information and support.  A community grew up around the site.  It became the place to ask a question, get advice, tell a personal story or listen to the personal stories of others.

What did people learn at Brock?  That they weren't the only ones who hadn't understood what the U.S. government wanted from them and who were filled with a sense of outrage once they did figure it out.

They learned that they weren't the only "Accidental Americans" or "Ex-Americans Having to Prove They are Not Americans" or "Spouses of U.S. citizens";  that they weren't the only people being told that they were guilty until they could prove their innocence.

Above all, those who thought they were one of the sorry few who just didn't get the memo about citizenship-based taxation and FBAR, were astonished to discover that they had a lot of company:  millions of other people:

- U.S citizens and Green Card holders living abroad
- Immigrants in the U.S.
- Anyone from any country who spends significant periods of time on U.S. soil
- Non-U.S. citizens with children in American universities or with American spouses and partners
-"Accidental Americans" who never knew they were considered U.S. citizens by the United States
- Ex-Americans, now citizens of other countries, who believed they had lost their U.S. citizenship long ago.

The vast majority of these people just didn't know they were supposed to comply with U.S. tax and reporting requirements.  All were desperately searching for more information and help.

A Voice:  At first people spoke freely but mostly anonymously on the website.  A lot of emotion there in the beginning and the community "formed, stormed and normed."  And then some people started to use their real names.  The floodgates opened and suddenly more and more folks became willing to talk to reporters, write articles and comment anywhere there was an article about FATCA and CBT.  The more people came out, the more other people felt comfortable doing the same. "People overcome fear by being together," (Castells 2012)

At the same time the "minnow" renunciants went public.  That was a sea change in the mentality of Americans abroad.  Renouncing U.S. citizenship went from being a taboo subject nobody dared to discuss openly to a perfectly acceptable topic of conversation among Americans abroad - even the most diehard "I will never give up my US citizenship ever."  And while there are still strong feelings about it, a renunciant is just as likely to get support and understanding when he talks about his experience as he is to be denounced.

Today, after two years on-line, the Isaac Brock Society website is at nearly 1 million all time hits.  The site regularly receives between 4,000 and 6,000 hits a day with people connecting from China, Europe, North and South America and many other places around the world.

The Social becomes Political:  The real story here is not tax evasion or states' effort to combat - it is about empowerment and how a group of regular people - financial "minnows" scattered all over the world in many countries - have come together to act on their own behalf,  bypassing traditional institutions.  It's a social movement of regular working people who are part and parcel of the 99% whether they live in Canada, Thailand, Mexico, France, China, or Brazil.

What is outrageous is that these people are in the ludicrous position of having to convince others that they are not rich just because they live outside of their home country, or have an connection to, the United States. Since when do socialists, Green party members and other "progressives" require a statement of net worth before they will accept ordinary people's right to protest on their own behalf?  

Is a Canadian retiree with a lifetime of savings or a veteran of the U.S. military with a home or an unemployed IT worker in Europe somehow unworthy in their eyes and should therefore humbly accept the "inconvenience" of FATCA and citizenship-based taxation for the greater good?  From where the Brockers sit, the only "good' that will come of FATCA will come in the form of millions of dollar in profit for the compliance industry - companies like KPMG - and the banks who will surely inflict the price of compliance to their local customers.  It is highly doubtful that either of these institutions are planning to pass on their largesse to the working people of America or any other country.  

What is happening right now is the transformation of this community of interest into one that can act on its outrage in the "real" world.  Using this safe space on the Internet as a springboard, the Brockers, united in their outrage, are now forming other networks through IRL (In Real Life) meetings and protests.  The latter started this week with those "Two Mom in Tennis Shoes".  Others are being planned.

A Social Movement Among Many:  To those who are quick to say that this is nothing at all, may I remind the pessimists and naysayers that many social movements in our time have had such humble beginnings.



From cyberspace to public space, from a community of interest to a community of action, the Brockers are learning together that a lack of money, influence and sympathy does not mean that they lack resources. They may be mosquitoes in the grand scheme of things but by leveraging the collective experiences, intelligence and skills in their community and other like-minded ones, they are swarming to good effect.

They have torn down the walls of fear, empowered ordinary people to act as their own advocates, and built a strong transnational network of incredibly diverse individuals.   It is one of the finest examples of spontaneous, bottom-up, non-hierarchical, global organizations around.

Ubi concordia, ibi victoria!
(Where there is unity, there is the victory)

(Full disclosure here:  I used "they" in this post but it is more accurate to say "we."  Peter Dunn brought me over to blog at Isaac Brock many months ago.  Since then I've been active in this movement, writing posts here at the Flophouse and over at Brock.  Now a few articles that I co-authored with Lynne Swanson have been published in The Hill and in Accounting Today.  I am a member of both ACA and AARO as well.  So I am a participant/observer in all this.  I do what I can to be of service with what I have and that's mostly writing. I  cannot express enough my appreciation for Peter, the Brock community and all the people in other organizations that have mobilized around this and who freely give their wisdom, guidance and help.  Whatever happens next, this has been an extraordinary experience.)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Flophouse Summer Vacation

It's la rentrée (back to school season) and what an odd re-entry.  Having dropped the Frenchlings off in Canada, we returned home to a house with two seriously disturbed cats, a pile of mail, and an overgrown garden.  I must be getting old because the jet-lag has been terrible and I'm not bouncing back as fast as I would like.  So far I have had the time and energy to: sterilize the litter box, contemplate therapy for the cats, clean up the worst of the back and front garden, and get some of our house projects restarted.

What's missing, of course, is the children.  This is the first time in 20 years that my spouse and I are home alone.  How strange and I find that I miss my daughters terribly.  I hate cooking for two.  I miss the family conversations at the end of the day.  I wonder how they're doing several times a day.  Maybe I'm the one who needs therapy - a group session with the cats to process our respective traumas.


Looking back over the summer however, I am amazed at how much activity we packed into such a very short period of time.  Here's just a few things that happened that made the trip so rewarding:

Meeting with the Brocksters in Vancouver:  This was one of the two best IRL (In Real Life) meetings I've ever had (the other was one organized in San Francisco many years ago by Electric Minds/Brainstorms).  The Isaac Brock Society is a website started by Peter Dunn (Canada) to fight FATCA and citizenship-based taxation.  It has become a powerful voice in the debate for many reasons:  It has some of the best research around, is open to wide variety of opinions (there is no censorship whatsoever) and it provides support and solace for those eggs (the "not rich" people) who are being adversely impacted by the FATCA/CBT omelet.   What a pleasure to meet in person and talk directly with others about what's happening to us - the people in the 99% who are collateral damage in the fight against the 1%.  It was really inspiring and I hope we can organize more meetings.  Anyone in Europe up for a meeting in, say, Brussels or London?

Visit to the District Offices of my Congresspersons:  While I was in Seattle I was able to meet with the staff at the district offices of my representative Jim McDermott and one of my senators, Maria Cantwell.   Bravo to both.  It was a wonderful experience for me, the people I talked were interesting, engaged, and willing to listen.  My sincere thanks to them and to Representative McDermott who took a few minutes as he was coming into the office to talk with me.  Made me feel much more a part of the homeland. I'm still an American even if I've abroad for many years and having that be recognized by my representatives meant the world to me.  As for the issues, I have no idea how persuasive I was - we'll have to see what happens.

Please note that my other senator, Patty Murray, didn't even acknowledge my request for a meeting.  I'm not going to mince words here:  That's not cool at all.  I would have understood her and her staff not having the time and saying so.  Silence I don't understand or accept.  Here is a constituent  in poor health from abroad who has flown thousand of miles to Seattle and was hardly asking for the moon: thirty minutes to an hour to talk about a few pressing issues that some of us Washington voters from abroad would really like her and her staff to understand.  A note would have been a nice gesture.  To add insult to injury, at the end of August Senator Murray did a tour of Washington State to hear from constituents.

Ms. Murray - you missed one and she is one very unhappy constituent/registered voter.

Meeting One of My Favorite Bloggers:  I've said before on the Flophouse one blog I follow religiously with bittersweet attention is Loic's Carnet de deux expats à Seattle.  Loic is a Frenchman who lives in Seattle with his wife and his observations about my hometown never fail to fascinate me.  In fact, these days most of the information I get about Seattle is through his blog in French.  We met and had so much to talk about.  He is a really remarkable guy and what pure pleasure it was to talk with him.

Looking at what I've written so far it seems clear to me that what makes any trip or summer vacation a success is people.  Connecting.  As I sit here in my little house in Versailles sipping my decaf, my thoughts are exclusively about the people I care about:  my Frenchlings, my friends, my frenemies.  That will never ever change regardless of where they (and I) are living at any one point in time.  As Frank Herbert once put it:   “Parting with friends is a sadness. A place is only a place.”

Monday, September 9, 2013

Learning a Second Language: Dreaming in Hindi

"To learn a second language, you must be willing to give your self up, the self encoded in your first one.  You are no longer a person who speaks with facility and authority.  You are less than you were as a child:  You cannot transact a phone call without help, discuss matters more complex than the color of fruits and vegetables.  You cannot signal who you are."

Dreaming in Hindi:  Life in Translation
Katherine Russell Rich

I picked up Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich when I was still in Seattle.  I had my doubts about it - the reviews of the book on Goodreads were very negative - but the subject matter interested me.  Here is woman, a New Yorkaise, with Stage IV breast cancer who throws up her career and goes to India for a year to learn to speak Hindi.

Why?  I don't know and I suspect that Rich didn't know either.  She had just gone through 10 years of treatment.  I went through one year and between the chemo and the radiation there were days when all I could do was take it one day at a time and desperately hope I still had a functional mind when it was over.

Her response to that period between treatments was to take a Hindi lesson and she found something in that exercise that may sound flippant but makes perfect sense to me:  "I no longer had the language to describe my own life.  So I decided I'd borrow someone else's."

Dreaming in Hindi is the story of the year Rich spent in India trying to master Hindi  - a year out of time, place and self.  From one culture and language to another on the other side of the planet.  It was meant to be, she said, a story about "the near-mystical and transformative powers of language:  the way that words, with only the tensile strength of breath, can tug you out of one world and land you in the center of another."  In the end it became something else: a powerful book about identity and its destruction and reconstruction through language.

It's a path I'm familiar with.  I started my own immersion here in France 20+ years ago and it's a journey with no end in sight.  Learning a language and a culture is a process that lasts a lifetime and there is never a moment when I'm not learning something new about this place I call home and the beautiful language which still has dark spaces for me.  After 25 years I still stumble when I'm tired, my pronunciation degrades under strong emotion and stress, and every so often someone points out a misuse of the subjunctive and I feel angry because I wish someone had mentioned it earlier - like 20 years ago, maybe?
"There is still the daily schism to contend with, of having the mind of a woman who's worked to have one and a voice that's the Indian equivalent of a U.S. sitcom character named Babu."
Rich's journey toward competence (not fluency) in Hindi will be very familiar to second language learners everywhere.  From the difficult, humbling and tentative efforts to express anything in the other language to that worst of both worlds where the new language hasn't settled and the old one starts to degrade:
"Hindi pollutes my English and vice versa.  I construct clunky Hindi sentences using English syntax;  total groaners, all wrong.  The courtly politeness of Hindi filters into my English, 'by your kindness," "I am obliged to your honor.' It leeches my American personality, makes me feel I've gone pale.  I never realized before the extent to which we reside in language.  We are how we speak."
And then there is the agony and humiliation of failure:
"'You have arrived when?' he asked. 'You are still speaking like this?  You should be ashamed.  Your school should be ashamed.'"
But what an incredible sense of accomplishment when things began to click:
"At school, I'm still dead last, too self-conscious to push myself in front of the others, but outside, I ski Hindi, have long, gleeful conversations in shops (gleeful for me, long for my interlocutors).  I kick off and really fly sometimes. 'Your Hindi is very good,' rickshaw walas say, by which they mean it's intelligible.  I talk until I drop."
The more language competence one has, the more one becomes aware of this world within the world that was inaccessible before.  Yes, we can read all we like about other cultures and how things work elsewhere but we don't, I contend, really see it until we can access it on its own terms.  Our first language/culture are an impediment to understanding, not just participating, because the certainty that comes with our mother tongue, and our efforts to translate that experience though our original language, are an exercise in defiance - a refusal to be changed.  We all want firm ground under our feet and yet, as long as we refuse to let go of what we were, we cling to all that cultural baggage,  not because we love it so much, but because we are too afraid to cast ourselves into the darkness, throw ourselves over the ledge, step on what looks like quicksand, and wholly embrace something that is both seductive and terrifying.
To acquire a language, I flog myself, you have to give up your accumulated assurances - this is how you say things, this is how it's done.  Pretty soon, I give up my American pretenses that things should be any way at all.
What's fascinating about Rich's book is that she analyzed what was happening to her over the course of the year.  She observed, for example, that her face was different after a few months.  Plausible reasons for this are changes in the environment like diet (I dropped 10 pounds within a few months of arriving in France) but it's possible that language is a factor, too.  She quotes A.L. Becker:
"'Most language systems have one central vowel.  It's the schwa in English.  In French, it's Uu.  It's that central place that shapes your face at rest.  When you're speaking, it's the recurrent place.  If it's far back, it changes your cheeks, changes the way your mouth looks."
If Rich had simply written about her experience with language, the book would be a satisfying meal.  It becomes a feast when she went beyond that to talk about culture (something she had to learn at the same time she was leaning the language) and how her relationship to her home country changed.  Rich was from New York and was in India during 911.  Here she was thousands of miles away while her city was burning surrounded by people whose interpretation of events was very different.  They ran the "facts" through their own prism of experience and had their own ideas about what it all meant :
"Swami-ji announced the latest international development, usually a dastardly act by Pakistan. 'Pakistan is going with Bin Laden,' he informed us when we returned to the bus for the next leg.  By the end of the day, China was rolling toward the border, Israel had bombed Afghanistan, and I'd figured out Swami-ji's news source:  the bus driver, who was getting his facts from other drivers when we stopped.. 'India is on red alert,' he announced as the bus pulled out of the Garden of the Maidens. 'Within twenty-four hours, America will bomb Pakistan.'  The teacher all shook their heads gravely."
It sounds surreal and yet this is what happens.  However we imagine that the global media and government propaganda agencies work, the reality is that people don't necessarily take what they have to say for the gospel truth, or may even be convinced that reporters are outright lying on behalf of this or that interest (something that is certainly true in some cases).  If a person is outside of their home country when some seminal event occurs in the homeland, the host country and culture interpretation is very powerful and, to some extent, as a resident one cannot help but be influenced by it.  This is normal since one is not directly part of the national conversation and one's sources of information (local news, local gossip) are very different.  I am often surprised when I talk to Americans in the homeland about 911 to see just how far apart we are.  We didn't experience the event in the same way and while they were having an internal conversation about it, I was right smack in the middle of another amongst people who had a very different point of view.

This can lead to a disconnect between the homeland and its diaspora which might actually be useful if those outside perspectives were welcome.  My experience (and yours might be very different) is that the homeland is not feeling secure enough yet to have that kind of conversation.  I'd give it another 10 years.

Rich was gone for one year.  I've been gone for nearly 20 now.  And yet, I think we both ended up in the same place, at different times:
At night, I lie in bed and worry that we've become a little like the Raj, the other students and I:  dumb to the ways the homeland's been altered, loyal to old notions, too floridly assured now, out of sync and out of time.  In the right here and now, we're citizens of the America we left at the beginning of September, a country still blessed by sheltering geography, a country that's impregnable and will always stay fortified.
For all these reasons and many more,  I recommend this book to you.  There are two editions and be sure to get the version published in 2011.  It was the 2010 edition that got so many bad reviews and with cause - it was very poorly edited.

Katherine Russell Rich died of breast cancer in 2012.