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Friday, November 30, 2012

Versailles and the Sound of Sacred Music

Let's change channels, folks, and move on to more interesting topics.

Starting earlier this week and continuing over the weekend is the annual Versailles au son des orgues.  This is a series of organ concerts at churches and chapels all around Versailles:  Notre Dame, the St. Louis cathedral, the Chapelle Royale at the castle and many others.  Even my parish church, Sainte Elisabeth de Hongrie, is on the program.

If you just happen to be in town tonight you have a choice between a concert in honor of Elisabeth Brasseur at the Eglise Sainte Jeanne d'Arc  or a free conference, "Histoire, architecture et facture d’un orgue" (History and architecture of the organ) at the Atelier Numérique.

To my deep regret I haven't attended any of the concerts this past week because of my appointments at the clinic but I am planning on making either Saturday's concert, "Musique allemande pour chœur et orgue" (German music for choir and organ)  at Saint Symphorien or  Sunday's concert at the St. Louis cathedral with Daniel Roth.  Both are free to the public.

Have a great weekend, everyone, and if you are interested in going to one of the concerts just let me know via email and we can meet over a little sacred music.  And if you haven't darkened the doors of a church in many many years, just relax and I'll walk you through it. :-)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

An American Abroad Pays Her Annual Tribute to the U.S.

Not too long ago this American abroad, with the help of her accountant, finally filed her U.S. taxes for 2011.  It was quite an impressive package that I printed out and sent off to the IRS.  In it were forms I'd never heard of and one that I'd heard way too much about, the 8938 which is basically a duplicate of treasury Form TDF 90-22.1 (FBAR) which I filed earlier this year.  Ah, the U.S. government is such a marvel of efficiency.

I am so thrilled to be done with it.  After many hours of work poring over bank statements, my 2011 French income tax declaration and other stuff from my archives, my accountant sent me the final version and I sent it off registered mail with a deep sigh of relief.  For 2011 I am in that exalted state of full compliance (knock on wood) with the U.S. reporting requirements.  Oh joy.

Especially since my final tax return yielded a rather distressing outcome:  I owed a lot more money than I had thought.  How did that happen?

Phantom gains:  Because we had sold  our last piece of investment property that year, I was aware that I would be paying capital gains on the sale and was prepared to the cough up a couple thousand U.S. dollars.  What I did not know was that I would "make" more money on paper because of the different exchange rates:  from Francs/Euros to U.S. Dollars.  That was something of a shock but even so I'd heard that this is a frequent problem for other Americans abroad - this issue of "phantom gains" on property or mutual funds that come about simply because we (Americans abroad) are doing business in local currency but the U.S. government insists that everything be converted to U.S. dollars using the IRS-approved exchange rate for that filing year.

Unemployment is not Earned Income:  I was unemployed and collecting French unemployment insurance for the year 2011.  To my utter disbelief this income is not excludable under the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion.  So basically it appears that I had to pay American taxes on my French unemployment benefits.  Amazing.

So what was the final damage?  9,000 U.S. Dollars (late filing fees and interest included).

Now that, mesdames et messieurs, is not at all a trivial amount.  All the more because I already paid taxes in France so the money sent to the US is on top of all I paid that year to the French "fisc."
And frankly it is an amount I can ill afford since I am being treated for cancer here in my host country and it will be a few months before I can look for work again.

Now at this point I am sure there is a "donneur de leçon" (know it all) in the audience who is conducting an inner dialogue with him or herself using one of the following rationalizations:

"Surely some of this money came from the U.S. originally or she has assets in the U.S."

No, not one dime of my money came from the U.S. I left America right after university (like 20 years ago) and built my career in Europe.  The investment property that we bought a few years ago was purchased with money earned entirely in France and with a loan from a French bank.  And I don't own anything in the U.S. - no property or stock or stuff like that.  My life is here in France.  End of story.

"I'm a U.S. expat and I've never ever owed anything so I don't understand what is going on with this lady but it sounds fishy to me."

For those Americans abroad who have very simple situations (studying, teaching English or working for a company that manages their U.S. taxes for them) chances are that they will spend their time abroad either never having made enough money to file or doing anything to complicate matters like getting married, purchasing property or investing locally.   That's fine and I make no judgments about how people live their lives.  However,  we all need to be very careful here and understand that situations are different and that one should not take one's personal experience as being globally true.   To someone who tells me, "I don't have to file or pay U.S. taxes," my reply is simply, "Not yet anyway" and "Are you really so sure about that?"   Why?  Because here's the thing we know about migrants (even American ones):   The road from "temporary" to "permanent" residency happens to the best (and the worst) of us.   Live abroad long enough and you will do something that will trigger a reporting requirement.  I guarantee it.

"She must have had an incompetent accountant because with the foreign tax credits she shouldn't owe anything to the U.S. government."

I'm very fond of my accountant and the service I use to file every year.  God knows I couldn't figure it out all by myself - the tax forms and instructions as applied to someone who lives 100% outside the U.S. are damn near incomprehensible to me.  So I rely on an expert to get me through this and I check what she does to the best of my ability.  But at some point I have to sign and pay up.  It did occur to me when I saw the bill that I might want to get a second opinion but let's think for two seconds what that would entail;.  I would have to 1. find another expert and provide all that information again and 2.  pay that expert his or her fee while racking up even more penalties and interest.  In the end this could  cost me much much more than the 9,000 USD I ended up owing.  So I paid.

If anyone out there is still thinking that I did a dumb thing by sending that payment off to the IRS then I challenge you to help me out.  If you are an accountant then I would be very happy to send everything to you and you can (having waived your usual fee of course) go over it and tell me what my accountant or I did wrong.  If you are not an accountant, then please write me a check for at least 5000 USD which is about what I would need to pay to get an expert second opinion from an international tax lawyer.  In either case I would happy to post the results on this blog.  Perhaps my experience could help someone else out.

So how do I feel about the good old U.S. of A (my home country) after having done what I have been told is my patriotic duty?

Honestly?  I feel like I'm paying tribute to a warlord.  I don't live in the U.S., I don't use any services there and am unlikely to do so anytime soon.  So what is my 9000 USD buying me?  Well, according to some homelanders I've talked it's so the U.S. Marines will come and get me if I get into trouble in my host country.  Interesting hypothesis but somehow I don't think the local government here (the French) would go for that.  No to mention that by offering it up as a reason for me to cough up money every year the homelanders are basically saying that this is "protection money."  Alas, this feels a lot more like "If you don't pay up we'll burn down your house, seize all your assets and put you in jail," as opposed to the more positive "You may live abroad but you're still an American citizen and we are here to help you if you get into trouble or you need us and that's why we need something from you."   Why they insist on the former instead of the latter is beyond me - do these people have any clue what that message sounds like to those of us who live outside the U.S.?

My U.S. citizenship is looking to be more and more of a bad bargain - a little like having sex with a gorilla. As a citizen of a very powerful and very intrusive state, I'm definitely at a disadvantage when the government decides to throw its weight around.  Essentially whatever the gorilla decides is what's going to happen and I just get to sit there and take it as long as that rather aggressive primate decides that I belong to the troop.

For the record I am not OK with paying nearly 10,000 USD a year to the U.S. on top of the substantial taxes I already pay to the French government just to have a pretty blue passport, no services to speak of, lots of stress and anxiety and the very very strong sense that I am being royally screwed over.

If anyone has another take on it, I'd be more than happy to hear it.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Biblio-Mat

From Open Culture (one of my favorite sites).

This device, called a Biblio-Mat (Biblio-Robot), was inspired by Stephen Fowler, owner of a second-hand bookstore in Toronto, Canada and instantiated by Craig Small.

This lovely little device will dispense random books for the very modest price of $2 (that's two Canadian dollars which is about 1.5 Euros).  What a cool concept.

It's been installed in a Toronto used book store called The Monkey's Paw.  I think it would be well worth buying a plane ticket from Paris to Toronto just to be able to walk in there, use the device and get a random book.  Why?  Because it perfectly satisfies my inner geek, my bodice-ripping book lust and the hidden joueuse (gambler) who intends to play the cosmic crapshoot of life as long as she can.

Of course there are other reasons as well to visit the fair city of Toronto so I'm going to put it at the top of the list of future Flophouse destinations once I get well enough to get on an airplane again.

And many thanks to Patrick Moore of Toronto who was passing by the Monkey's Paw and was kind enough to send along this photo.  Merci infiniment, Pat. 

The BIBLIO-MAT from Craig Small on Vimeo.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The TAS: Your Voice at the IRS

A name to know in the Diaspora Tax War of 2012.

TAS stands for Taxpayer Advocate Service and they are the U.S. government agency with a mandate to keep an eye on the American "fisc."

The TAS is run by the NTA, the National Taxpayer Advocate, Nina Olson, who is, in the eyes of many Americans abroad, a queen among women, an ally, and our heroine.  Why?

Because in her 2011 annual report to the US Congress released earlier this year Madame Olson singled out the IRS' treatment of U.S. persons abroad in the amnesty programs (aka OVDP - Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Programs) saying that the way the program was applied to certain categories of non-compliant taxpayers was positively draconian and may even have opened up the U.S. government to legal challenges.

Many of the people who went into these amnesty program were not criminals, they were simply folks who finally realized that they had a reporting obligation and wanted to make it right.  For their willingness to come forward, they were "rewarded" with penalties (not necessarily back taxes mind you) that would have wiped them out financially.   Some of these cases have been resolved and the fines and penalties lowered or forgiven entirely but I can assure you that trust for the IRS and the U.S. government right now is at an all time low.  Another amnesty program has been announced by the IRS and I don't know of anyone who is even contemplating joining - they'd rather do a deep dive and never set foot in the U.S. again even if it means not being able to take care of elderly parents back home.

For all of the IRS chest beating over the "success" of these amnesty programs, the casualty has been trust and the willingness of non-compliant Americans abroad to come forward voluntarily.  In fact I would even say that where many of the non-compliant middle-class American expatriates once felt that they had a moral obligation to set things right and file those damn forms, they now feel that they have a good moral case for NOT complying.  This means that IRS will have to work harder and spend more taxpayer money bringing them (kicking and screaming all the way) back into the fold. As Madame Olson warned nearly a year ago in her report:
"The IRS’s miscommunication has consequences. If the government does not appear to treat benign actors fairly when they try to correct honest mistakes, then fewer people (even well-advised people) will try to correct their mistakes, and voluntary compliance will suffer. even if it were inclined to do so, the IRS does not have the resources to rely entirely on enforcement. the IRS needs taxpayers to cooperate and comply voluntarily. While an estimated five to seven million U.S. citizens reside abroad, the IRS received only 218,840 FBAR filings in 2008. By comparison, the government closed only 2,386 FBAR examinations and initiated only 21 criminal investigations in 2010.
While the ovdp attracted 15,364 applications (perhaps less than one percent of those who did not file FBARs), a more effective initiative would have prompted even more taxpayers to come into compliance without leaving those who did come forward feeling terrified, tricked, or cheated. By generating such ill will and mistrust, the IRS is squandering an opportunity to improve voluntary compliance. "
And now The Taxpayer Advocate Service and Nina Olson have come out with their 2013 objectives and how thrilled (and relieved) I was to see that Americans and Green Card holders abroad have not been forgotten.  Click on the Areas of Focus link and scroll down to page 21 where they say:

TAS Will Continue Advocating for American Taxpayers Abroad Who 
Are Expressing Fear and Frustration about FBAR, FATCA and Other 
International Penalties

Yes!  And such efforts deserve positive reinforcement, don't you think?  Madame Olson has a blog here where you can submit comments and I think a "thank you and please keep up the good work" for TAS' efforts would be a darn good idea.  Clearly they have been listening and looking into it and they don't like what they see.

Those of us who are living this nightmare are screaming and kicking at the doors of our lawmakers trying to get some attention to how these issues impact the average mostly middle-class American citizen or Green Card holders abroad.  For our trouble we are often dismissed out of hand because clearly there is no such thing as a middle-class American abroad, right?  My answer to this one is simply to say if we actually had the kind of money we are accused of hiding then we'd be doing the American thing and buying ourselves a couple of politicians to vote on our behalf.  Since that isn't happening and U.S. lawmakers hardly give us the time of day (much less respond to our mail) I think we can safely say that that those billions and billions of ill-gotten gains supposedly hidden in offshore bank accounts exist only in the minds of the American homelanders.  

But we do have one ally within the U.S. government who is taking us seriously and both the TAS and the NTA have my eternal gratitude for their excellent work.  

Saturday, November 17, 2012

A Daily Date with a Particle Accelerator

The adventure continues.  This week I began radiotherapy (aka "les Rayons") at the cancer center.  As my primary care physician promised it was a whole different kettle of fish from the chemo.  No nausea and no long lazy afternoons on the drip (and that's a huge relief) but also a lot less "amitié solidaire" which I miss.  A lot.

It all started on Tuesday with an interview with a manipulatrice (operator) who explained to me their system for getting one month's sessions done as efficiently and effectively as possible.  There is a schedule and every day I have a date with the accelerator, a Clinac 600.  The exact time of each treatment varies each day so one morning I'm up and out the door early for a 10:30 AM session and on another day I can "faire la grasse matinée" (sleep in) because I don't have to be at the clinic until 3:30 in the afternoon.

The first appointment on Tuesday was the longest - about 30 minutes - because in addition to the tattoos I got last time and the orientation, the technician drew arcane designs on my chest in permanent ink.  These are used in order to properly position the device for each session.  I thought about taking a picture and showing it to you but to tell you the truth the way my scarred, tattooed, inked torso looks these days scares the hell out of me.  Something tells me that you would find this to be TMI (too much information).  So let's just say that the area between my neck and my waist looks something like a cross between this:

And this:

So how does it work now that I've been drawn and quartered?  Every day I walk to Versailles-Chantiers, take the train in to Saint Cloud, go to the radiotherapy reception desk where I flash my membership card and pick up my chart.  Then I take the elevator down into the bowels of the clinic (-3), slip my chart through a slot in a door and find a seat in the waiting room.  When they call my name I enter a small dressing room where I store my things, hang up my coat, undress to the waist, slip on a sweater, and walk into the chamber with the accelerator.  The operator then positions me under the device and leaves the room.  A bell chimes and then the machine takes over and starts moving about (reminds me of every Terminator movie I've ever seen).  When the device stops in what I presume is the correct position, I hear clicking noises that I imagine is the device shooting the photons into me.

 What is my job in all of this?  To stay as still as possible and relax.  Not too hard since the entire session lasts for less than 5 minutes.  As of yesterday that was 4 session downs and about 20 more to go. I will be done just before Christmas.

The whole business is quite efficient.  The process is clear and thus far every appointment has been on time and I am literally in and out in a matter of minutes.  And that turns out to be both a good and a bad thing.  The good part is that I have a schedule and I can plan my day around my appointments.  The part I don't like so much is that there isn't really much human interaction in the process. I present a card and get my file.  I slip my file into the door and wait until my name is called.  After being positioned on the table under the machine I am left alone in the room while I'm being radiated.  It's a little like an assembly line and while almost everyone is very kind there really isn't any time to talk and to get to know anyone.

Not that I'm complaining about the staff mind you.  These people are trying to save my life which means they have my eternal gratitude.  But I am missing the solidarity that I experienced in the chemo service where one really feels like it's a team effort and everyone (staff and patients alike) has the time to get to know each other.

That was my impression after my first week.  Perhaps my feelings about it will change over the next few days.  In fact it is far more likely that I will find unexpected treasures in this new experience if I can learn to let go of the old one and stop judging.  In fact there is something really funny about me feeling nostalgic for chemo. No reason to think that radiation therapy will be better or worse than chemo - just different.  And as Pema Chodron said, "Everything in our lives can wake us up or put us to sleep, and basically it's up to us to let it wake us up."

Monday, November 12, 2012

Les Jeudis Musicaux

Last Thursday the younger Frenchling and I made our way to the Versailles castle for what turned out to be an extraordinary evening.

Les Jeudis Musicaux (Musical Thursdays) are concerts organized by the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles at the Versailles Castle. And not just anywhere in the castle mind you but in the Royal Chapel.    

Sacred music in a sacred place.  What an incredible experience to hear the music written for chapels and churches hundreds of years ago.  The music that people listened to when they went to Mass.

And what was on the program last Thursday evening?

Jean-Jean-François Dandrieu
Magnificat en La 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Ave verum

Louis Grénon
Petite Messe en la majeur (A Major)

And for the last they kindly provided both the Latin and the French translations in the program so that we could all follow along as the choir sang the mass.  It was really something at the end when they chanted Domine salvum fac regem (God save the King):

Domine salvum fac regem
& exaudi nos in die
qua invocaverimus te

Seigneur sauvez le Roy
& exaucez-nous au jour
que nous vous invoquerons

God save the King
and answer us the day 
we call on you

These Musical Thursdays are just one of the many cultural events held here in Versailles that are not nearly as well known as they should be.  (Another is the incredible show put on by the  L'Académie du spectacle équestre (The Academy of Equestrian Arts) in the King's Stables).

And would you believe that these musical feasts are completely free to the public?  You don't even have to buy a ticket to get inside the the castle - you just go directly to a door adjacent to the chapel, say you are there for the concert, and they usher you right in.  Amazing.

Don't miss it next time you are in the city.  And if you send me a note ahead of time, I'll go with you.

In fact, I'd go every Thursday if I could.  This is the kind of "stuff" I love and I personally think is well worth paying for.  I am so very grateful that I live in a country that sees nourishment for the soul and the mind as something worth offering to everyone.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Demographics, Immigration, and the U.S. Election

The aftermath of the U.S. election is really something to see.  The Democrats (Obama's party) are jubilant while the Republicans (right-wing) are in a state of shock.  Between you and me, I think both sides need to watch what they say - people in the grip of strong emotion are often not terribly coherent and apt to say things they later regret.  Restraint of pen and tongue should be the order of the day until everyone gets enough distance to be rational and cool-headed.

But there is one theme coming out of the election post-mortem that is worth discussing here.  More than one analyst has pointed to demographics and immigration as key reasons for the Republican's loss.  Their argument is summed up by Juan Williams in the Wall Street Journal:

The critical political message from President Obama's re-election victory Tuesday is that he cemented a new coalition of Democrats, led by the Latino vote, which threatens to reduce Republicans to an afterthought in future national elections.

Who belongs to this new coalition that William's is referring to?  African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, young voters and others.  Who is presumably not part of this coalition according to Mr. Williams?  Something called "white voters" - basically those Americans of Northern European origin whose numbers are declining.  In order for the Republicans to stay relevant, says Mr. Williams, they must broaden their base and appeal to other groups like Hispanics.

Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post concurs and argues that the call for the Republican party to adapt to demographic realities is very very true when it comes to Hispanics who are in his words, "a natural Republican constituency: striving immigrant community, religious, Catholic, family-oriented and socially conservative (on abortion, for example)."  So why then in his view did Hispanics vote for Obama?  Immigration issues, says Mr. Krauthammer.  The Republican party should never have been so strident about enforcement of the immigration laws and should have offered an amnesty or some sort of path to regularization/citizenship for 'illegals' in the U.S.

Versions of this argument were around before the election and have gained a great deal of steam since because the Republicans lost (no hiding that grim reality) and must explain that loss to their supporters.  It may be more palatable for American conservatives to blame forces like demographics instead of focusing on their platform and their message.  But there is truth in it.  This 2011 Pew study showed that Hispanic voters do tend to lean toward the Democrats and feel that they (as opposed to the Republicans) show "more concern for Hispanics."

But does it necessarily follow that Hispanic voters are deeply concerned about immigration issues and voted accordingly?  Not necessarily.  This Gallup poll from June 2012 showed that healthcare, unemployment and the economy were the top issues for registered Hispanic voters, not immigration.  As for U.S. adults overall,  immigration was dead last on the list of their top concerns.

This is a very good example of why immigration is such a deadly topic for politicians.  There were many passionate voices in the Republican party that called for electric fences no amnesty, and punishing the "illegals."  In reaction to that many Republican candidates were genuflecting in the direction of those voices. - falling over themselves to prove how tough they were going to be on the "sans papiers."  Did this help them?  Probably not.

On the other hand there was the Obama administration who over the past four years presided over massive deportations of undocumented migrants and, in some cases, U.S. citizens.  Did this hurt Obama and the Democrats?  Doesn't appear to have had much of an impact.

So what lessons am I taking away from this election?

Race and ethnicity still matter so much in the U.S.  After many years living outside of the U.S. I find it shocking to see how Americans are sliced and diced and poured into racial categories in a way that you don't see in other places. It took me a moment to realize that I fall into the category of "white voter" in the U.S.  Now if I were to become a French citizen, would the French refer to me in that way?    Don't think so and while there are other categories like "Français de souche" these are used primarily by a few and are not invoked systematically as a way of dividing up the French population along racial or ethnic lines.

Race in the U.S. seems to trump almost all other ways of looking at the population.   Some of the categories are pretty dubious and clearly cultural constructs since they seem to have been created solely by Americans for other Americans.  Are there other countries that use race and ethnicity in this way?   Not that I know of but please feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.  Forgive me but I don't see much "E pluribus unum" going on in the U.S. these days.  But hasn't that always been true and doesn't that Latin phrase represent more of a wish than a reality?

Immigration may not be that big a deal to most Americans:  For all the passion behind the debate the rhetoric and the reality doesn't seem to have changed people's minds.  Hispanics did not refuse to vote for Obama because of stricter immigration enforcement and it doesn't appear that Americans in general were all that concerned about immigration policy and enforcement when it came down to voting for or against a candidate.   Lot of noise around the issue but in the end it didn't really matter.

Perhaps American politicians would do better to just stop talking about it at all. So much of immigration policy is simply beyond the control of the U.S. authorities.  The U.S. can staple as many Green Cards as it likes to immigrants' diplomas but that won't change the growing attractiveness of other destinations.  The U.S. can put up all kinds of fences along the border with Mexico (good luck with that - it's a long border) but determined migrants will always find a way in.  Nearly 30% of immigration to the U.S. is from Mexico which means that an intelligent approach to U.S. immigration policy would be to treat it as a regional migrant management issue. And that means working with the Mexican government which already asked the U.S. back in 2006 to consider a joint approach.  

And isn't it interesting that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats floated that idea to the American people?  Just a suggestion for U.S. lawmakers whatever party they belong to:  Kick the entire business up to some regional supra-national committee and be done with it.

After all, this does seem to be a viable strategy for some European politicians who are more than happy to have the EU take this contentious issue off their hands. :-)

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Le Quartier de Montreuil

In all my time in Versailles I've never been quite sure what neighborhood I live in.  Our apartment is in a kind of no man's land on the avenue de Paris about halfway between Porchefontaine and Chantiers and right across from the Domaine de Madame Elisabeth.  I had searched in vain for some sort of modern map of Versailles that would clearly show each neighborhood and had found nothing of interest until I stumbled upon this map from 1878 ( that's modern enough for me).

According to this map I live in something called the quartier de Montreuil.  Good to know.  And I was very surprised to learn that the area is, in fact, older than the city of Versailles and has an equally interesting history.

Once upon a time in this area was a small rural village that grew up around a monastery founded in the 6th century by a bishop of Paris.  According to the parish guide I picked up a local church, Montreuil is a contraction of the word "monasteriolum" which means little monastery.  The area did not become part of Versailles proper until very recently - it was only annexed by Louis XVI in 1787 at his sister's (Madame Elisabeth's) request.  

Oh and by the way Madame was not the only noble lady to have property there.  The Comtesse de Provence, the wife of another sibling of Louis XVI (the one who became Louis XVIII) had about 12 hectares to the east of Madame Elisabeth's property but that holding was split up and sold after the Revolution. 

The 1878 map divides Montreuil into two areas.  There is the "Petit Montreuil" on the south side of the avenue de Paris where I live.  Frankly, it's not terribly exciting as neighborhoods go - it's mostly apartment buildings with a few houses here and there.  But it does perk up when you arrive at the Octrois and the very distinct and village-like Porchefontaine district.  

To the north on the other side of the avenue de Paris is the "Grand Montreuil" - the site, I believe, of the original monastery and village which I decided to explore on foot earlier this week.   It's a place with a lot of character and I know it a little bit already because the Frenchlings went to middle school there (College Jean-Philippe Rameau) and the elder Frenchling graduated from the Lycée La Bruyère.    My guide was this fine map I found on the local parish website.  Going west on the avenue de Paris, I took a right onto the rue Champ-la-Garde, walked until I reached the rue des Condamines and saw the church, St. Symphorien which was my first stop.

I spent some time on the Saint-Symphorien website before I started my journey through Montreuil.  This is the third or fourth church to sit on this site since 560 AD.  This one was built in the 18th century and at first glance it doesn't look like a church at all with the four columns decorating the front.  But if you slip inside, the layout is the very familiar shape of the cross.  I did not take any pictures of the inside since it is a place of worship and people (myself included) were praying.  However, the photos on the parish website of the architectural features inside do them justice and I encourage you to have a look.  It's a beautiful church and the altar is just stunning.  A quick peek at the parish's Guide paroissal 2013 reveals a lively parish community with many associations and of course ties to other churches and Catholic schools in the area.  I lit a few candles and left with a twinge of regret that this will not be my parish.

In front of the church is the Place Saint-Symphorien which has some beautiful buildings.  Here's one that I thought was particularly lovely:

The Place Saint-Symphorien is the intersection of at least five streets:  rue Saint-Charles, boulevard de Lesseps, rue d'Artois, rue des Condamines and the rue de Montreuil.   I chose the last one for a stroll and I was so glad I did.  What a marvelous place with all kinds of small shops.  It's practically a world unto itself with everything one might need:  bakeries, bookshops, cobblers, banks, insurance agents, florists, butchers, cheese, wine and vegetables shops and much more.  I suppose the only thing one might miss is the cinema but since I am not a fan of flickering screens that didn't bother me one bit.

And I was not immune to the lure of the shops.  I spent way too much time in the bookstore but I did find several good reads that are not available for my Kindle and can't be had from the library in Paris.

Feeling hungry and tired I decided to head for home.  I walked back past the church and onto the rue des Condamines but decided to turn to the left and went down the rue Pasteur instead.  This is a really old street with many lovely houses - some in very good shape and a few in disrepair.  I'll leave you with a few pictures I took as I strolled leisurely home to a crackling fire and some hot soup.

Really cute house with a lovely garden
This house appears to be vacant and falling down 
Part of the wall surrounding the Domaine de Madame 
Wish I knew more about this mansion which is quite stunning.
It's located at the corner of the rue de Pasteur and the avenue de Paris.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

French Media Articles About the U.S. Election

The Flophouse remained under a media blackout until 8:00 this morning.  Then with coffee in hand I had a look at the headlines in the U.S. and France.  I started with the New York Times and first thing I saw was all that BLUE on the map and the words, Obama's Night.  From this I gathered that the U.S. president was re-elected yesterday.

Once I got that and the results of the local races clear in my head, I went straight to the French papers to get their reactions.

Let's start with Le Monde.  The front-page headline this morning was:   Obama réélu : "Le meilleur est à venir" (Obama re-elected: "The best is yet to come").

Another headline focused on the Republicans and the failure of their strategy:   La stratégie électorale des républicains n'a pas fonctionné which they say was designed to make do without the state of Ohio even though "aucun conservateur n'avait gagné la Maison Blanche sans l'Ohio depuis plus d'un siècle." (no conservative has won the White House without Ohio in over a century.)  Clearly this plan had a few design flaws.

And finally Le Monde had an article about what some members of the American community in Paris  were doing last night:  Une nuit américaine à Paris (An American Night in Paris).  Looks like my fellow Americans abroad here have assimilated the French idea that anything and everything are  good reasons to party, drink and dance.
"Dans plusieurs quartiers, ils ont loué des bars et des restaurants, bien décidés à faire la fête quels que soient les résultats du scrutin. Les jeunes militants de l'association Democrats Abroad, qui représente le parti démocrate à l'étranger, ont privatisé le Palais Maillot pour une soirée dansante."
(In several neighborhoods, they rented bars and resturants, planning to party regardless of the voting results.  The young militants of Democrats Abroad, who represent the Democrat party outside the U.S., even booked the Palais Maillot for an evening of dancing.)
Des Américains plus fortunés se sont retrouvés dans les salons luxueux de l'hôtel Pershing Hall, près des Champs Elysées – un lieu très symbolique, qui fut le quartier général du corps expéditionnaire américain pendant la première guerre mondiale, puis le siège parisien de l'American Legion. Le ticket d'entrée était à 80 euros, consommations non comprises. 
Dans un esprit de rassemblement patriotique, l'événement a été organisé conjointement par les sections parisiennes des deux associations Democrats Abroad et Republicans Abroad. 
(Wealthier Americans gathered in the luxurious rooms of the hotel, Pershing Hall near the  Champs Elysées - a symbolic location that was the headquarters of the American expeditionary force during World War I and is now the Paris seat of the American Legion.  Tickets were 80 Euros with food and drink not included. 
In the spirit of a patriotic gathering, the event was sponsored jointly by the Parisian chapters of Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad.)
Moving on the Le Figaro.

Funny but they seem a lot less enthusiastic than Le Monde about an Obama victory.  Their headline was:  L'Amérique offre quatre ans de plus à Barack Obama (America offers four more years of Barack Obama).
In this article  Les républicains gardent la main sur la Chambre des représentants, they point out that the Republicans still have a majority in House of Representatives and in another article they warn that
Obama va être vite confronté au risque de paralysie (Obama will be quickly faced with a risk of [political] paralysis).
La configuration politique promet en effet d'être quasiment la même qu'auparavant au Congrès: les Républicains gardent la Chambre et les démocrates semblent assurés de garder le Sénat. «Cette élection a montré un pays divisé», explique David Gergen, ancien conseiller de Reagan.
(The political landscape promises to be exactly the same as before concerning the Congress:  the Republicans with a majority in the House of Representatives and the Democrats assured of keeping the Senate. 'This election shows a divided country,' explains David Gergen, former advisor to Reagan.)
And finally here are the headlines from three others: 

Le Parisien :  Les «plus chaleureuses félicitations» de Hollande à Obama (Warmest congratulation from Hollande to Obama)

L'Humanité:  Barack Obama président pour 4 ans de plus (Barack Obama will govern for 4 more years)

La Croix: L’Amérique accorde un second mandat à Barack Obama (America gives a second mandate to Barack Obama).

Bonne lecture, everyone!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day U.S.A.

Today is the last day Americans can cast ballots for the 2012 general election.

As I avoid all media reports since they only irritate me right now, I am instead thinking about a conversation that Gore Vidal reported (in Inventing a Nation) having had with John Kennedy one fine day.  Kennedy asked how a "backwards country like this, with only three million people, could have produced the three great geniuses of the 18th century - Franklin, Jefferson and Hamilton.

Excellent question.  Allow me to update it.  How is it that an advanced country like this, with nearly 315 million people, does not seem to have produced even one political genius on the same level as a Franklin, Jefferson or Hamilton in the early 21st century?

And that is all I will say about it.

For those of  you who would like a 20-minute break away from the election madness may I suggest this excellent Ted talk by Michael Sandel who has some suggestions for how to raise the level of discourse in American politics.  Useful regardless of who wins tomorrow. And one of his examples is same-sex marriage which ties in nicely with yesterday's Flophouse post.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Gay Marriage In France

One of the weirder stereotypes I've encountered in my Franco-American life is this idea that the French are super progressive and completely cool with everything to do with sex and the Americans are a bunch of homophobic puritans.  The truth is so much more complicated.

A case in point:  gay marriage.    This is a hotly debated topic in both the U.S. and France.  The fundamental issues are very similar but the contexts are different.  In the U.S. it is a state by state battle for the most part with different legislation depending on the region. Some U.S. states outright prohibit same -sex unions while others allow civil unions but not marriage and finally there are a few states that now permit same-sex marriage on the same terms as heterosexual couples.

So what is the situation in France?   Unlike the U.S. marriage law is not the domain of regional government - a département in France simply does not have the same autonomy as a state and does not have the authority to vote the marriage laws it likes.  So the debate over marriage laws is one for the national (not local) government.

Another important difference is who has the authority to preside over a legal and binding marriage.  In the U.S. states permit religious representatives (rabbis, priests and others) to legally marry a couple.  This means that a church wedding is legal and binding in the U.S.  This not true in France.  In France the only marriage that counts is the one in the mayor's office.  This means that legal marriage in France is already divorced from religion.  You can still get married in the church or the temple or the synagogue but that is a purely private matter.

French national law as it stands today recognizes same-sex unions under a regime called the PACS (un pacte civil de solidarité) but does not permit same-sex couples to marry. Does that make a difference?  Well, yes, it does.  The PACS was progress but it does not confer the same rights as marriage and while heterosexual couples have a choice between marriage or the PACS, same-sex couples can only have their union recognized under the latter.  For some very interesting statistics about PACS unions see this INSEE report.  They say that only 6% of PACS unions involve same-sex couples.

Francois Hollande, the new French president, vowed during his campaign to change this and make marriage accessible to same-sex couples.  There is a "projet de loi" to that effect making its way to the Assembly this week.  The law is called "le mariage et l'adoption pour tous" (marriage and adoption for everyone).   The Socialists are essentially killing two controversial birds with one stone here by attempting to make both gay marriage and gay adoption legal.

So how is that playing with the French public?  The polls show that there is a clear majority in favor of gay marriage:  58% in favor and only 41% against.  Support for marriage equality however does not necessarily translate into support for gay adoption - the French are split 50/50 for and against.

I would not pretend that the people I know here are representative of the entire French nation but the polls seem to accurately reflect the views they have shared with me.  The idea of gay marriage does not seem to bother most of my friends all that much - it just seems fair to them that gays should be able to make the same legal unions as straight people.  Where they get reticent is when it comes down to a gay couple creating a family through adoption - a situation where the non-biological parent would have rights and parental authority over a minor child.

And now the Church is getting involved.  The Cardinal/Archbishop of Paris André Vingt-Trois  came out against the law recently and that seems to have been a signal that the Church is mobilizing.  Yesterday I went to Mass and the priest made the Church's position on the matter crystal clear:  against homophobia and against gay marriage.    I found at least one point in his sermon rather intriguing - he said that while many French seem to think that the Protestant Christians are much cooler than the Catholics in matters related to sex (Is that really true?  Do the French really think that?) even French Protestants are against the law.  Turns out that he was right - the president of the Fédération protestante de France, the pastor Claude Baty, came out against the law as well as representatives of the Moslem and Jewish faiths in France.

The appeal from the pulpit this weekend was a call to arms against the law.  The Cardinal is asking Catholics to send letters to, and to put pressure on, lawmakers.  He is also encouraging Christians and other like-minded denominations to hold public demonstrations against the law though he denies that he or the Church is getting directly involved in politics:

"C'est la responsabilité des associations et des mouvements de savoir s'ils doivent agir ainsi, précise l'archevêque de Paris. Je ne suis pas responsable d'un mouvement politique. Je suis responsable d'une Église. Ma fonction n'est pas de mener l'action politique. Elle est d'éveiller les consciences et d'alerter mes concitoyens.»
(It is the responsibility of the associations and movements to discern if they should act in this regard, said the Archbishop of Paris.  I am not responsible for a political movement.  I am responsible for a Church.  My role is not to lead a political action. It is to awaken consciences and to alert my fellow citizens.)

I strongly suspect that there will be demonstrations over the "mariage pour tous."  Will this prevent the law from being passed?  No idea but I do think it's going to be a very bitter fight.   This is one to watch very closely.  The Catholic Church in France usually prefers (as nearly as I can tell) to work behind the scenes but every once in awhile she takes a very public stand and roars.  This may be one of those times. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Le Domaine de Madame Elisabeth

The younger Frenchling and I made a deal this morning after I came home from mass.  She has one week of vacation left and I have one week before my radiotherapy begins and neither of us really wants to spend that time sitting at home.   So starting today we are going to find at least one thing (monument, park, museum, exhibition) we've never seen before in Paris or Versailles and go there together.

Today's choice was pathetically easy.  We've lived across from the Domaine de Madame Elisabeth for over 5 years now and no one from our family has so much as put one foot inside the gates.  This afternoon we rectified that.

The Domaine de Madame Elisabeth (also called the Domaine de Montreuil) is a property of around 8 hectares (about 19 scres)  that was acquired by the king, Louis XVI, in the late 18th century from a noble couple in financial difficulty.  The king gifted it to his younger sister, Madame Elisabeth, in 1783 when she was 19 years old.  Which meant, as the younger Frenchling pointed out, she didn't have much time to enjoy it.

When the Revolution began she refused to go into exile and was imprisoned with her brother and his wife and followed them to the scaffold in 1794.

Today the Domaine is a public park and entry is free to the public.  It would probably be best to visit in the summertime but today was a cool sunny autumn day and it was perfect for a walk.  Here are a few pictures:

Friday, November 2, 2012

That American Library in Paris

Earlier this week I marched myself down to 10, rue du Général Camou and purchased an annual membership  in the American Library.

Last time I had a membership we were living just across the river near Trocadero and the Frenchlings were still in elementary school.  We had a family membership and I used to force them to walk over with me to attend English-language story time in the children's section.  (My children who are very happy to be bi-lingual today have amnesia about how much they hated speaking English back then.)

The American Library in Paris was founded in 1920 just after World War I with the books that libraries in the U.S. sent over for the soldiers to read - about 1.5 million of them.

Since then the library has had quite a history. While I was on the premises I picked up an information sheet called "A Short History of the Library. " Here are a few interesting events from the past:

1923 - Library launches a review called Ex Libris. Early contributors were Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.

1933 - Literary evenings are launched at the library. Guest authors are Colette, Andre Gide and Ford Madox Ford.

1941 - The library director is sent home to the U.S. for her safety but library board member Countess Clara de Chambrun arranges for the library to remain open under the occupation. Library staff operates an underground lending service for Jewish members.

1953 - Two investigators for Senator McCarthy in a mission to root out communist literature are turned away from the library by the Director.

Today the library is located in the 7th district very close to the Eiffel Tower.  It was renovated in 2011 and they did a beautiful job - lots of room to settle in and read.  Their catalog is on-line so you can search from home and then stop by and pick up the books you selected.

Why was I inspired to renew my membership?  It was a combination of the limitations of my Kindle and our upcoming move to Porchefontaine.   I love my Kindle but not all the books I want to read exist in electronic format and perhaps never will.  I still purchase quite a few regular (made out of dead trees) books and that has become a problem now that we are moving.  Our new house is much smaller than our old apartment and I have over 200 books that I must either give away or throw away.   I think it makes a great deal more sense for me to subscribe to the library for the books I want for research instead of purchasing copies that I risk having to throw out later.

I had not planned on using my subscription that day but I unexpectedly had a few minutes to cruise the new book collection and the catalog.  To my delight, they had a copy of a book I've wanted to read for some time:   Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany by Rogers Brubaker. A Kindle edition is now available (it wasn't last time I looked) but for around 20 USD.   I also picked up William Pfaff's The Irony of Manifest Destiny and Peter Sahlin's Unnaturally French.

I had forgotten how lovely it was to be in a library:  the smell of books, the quiet and the bounty spread before in a visual feast that Amazon just can't match.  Feeling a little like drug addict in a crackhouse, I forced myself to stop at 3 books (all I could carry really) and walked out of the library flush and happy.

I will be back.

As I trekked back up the street to the RER station for the ride home I came across this building which I have certainly passed by before but it was only the day I visited the library that I really saw it.  It's one of the most stunning buildings I've seen in Paris.