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Category: expat reference

helpful hints about living abroad

traffic jammin’ with Joe

If you’ve poked your head out the rolled-down window, trying to see who’s at the front of a long line of unmoving cars, I’ll tell you.  It’s probably me.

The world traffic jam report is out, aka « Global Traffic Scorecard » from Inrix.  Los Angeles, where I was born, is #1.  Paris, where I now live, is #9.  In all, I’ve lived in 5 of the world’s Top 10 most congested cities.  Apologies everybody.

Today is the 38th anniversary of the longest traffic jam in history, according to Scienceoholic.  Bumper-to-bumper cars stretched for 175 km from Lyon to Paris on February 16, 1980.  No, I wasn’t there 😉

On the eve of Parisian schools’ Winter vacations, where masses of people drive to the Alps to ski, let’s not try to break any records, people.  I’ll do my part by staying home!

Three of the most clogged cities feature prominently in my travel memoir French License.  Read a sample.  Buy the book.  Keep a copy in your glovebox just in case.

© 2018 Copyright Joe Start. All rights reserved.



 

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the 5 kinds of tourists you meet at Père Lachaise

A caravan of lost souls.  I’m not talking about the permanent residents of Père Lachaise cemetery.  I’m referring to the tourists, the day-trippers who trip aimlessly throughout the park.  Is this the way they wanted to spend their precious vacation day?

Yet here they are, wide-eyed, dumbfounded and hopelessly far from their cherished celebrity.  You can categorize them by their level of distress, from greatest to least.  Here’s a look at the 5 kinds of tourists you meet at Père Lachaise:

The Wanderer

  “Hi, can you help me find Jim?”  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked this question.  It’s been asked of me in all four corners of the 44 hectare park.  It’s all I can do to hold back saying, “Buddy, you have no idea how far off you are.”  It doesn’t matter what country the person is from.  They just showed up at Père Lachaise and thought they could wander around the 70 000 sites and bump into Jim.  People are strange.
rating: zero tombstones

Dora the Explorer

  This person has only one thing more than the Wanderer: “I’m the Map, I’m the Map, I’m the Map…” and it gets them nowhere.  You see, for a map to work, you also need markers in the physical world.  You know, like signs, landmarks, distinguishable objects.  Père Lachaise hardly has any of these things that people are used to.  Are you a fan of Geocaching?  Most adults don’t like to play hide-and-seek, but that’s exactly what Dora plays at Père Lachaise because she doesn’t have the right tools.
  First off, more than half the signs are missing.  Many of the ones which remain are pointed in the wrong direction, making you think path A is really path B.  To top it off, a lot of the paths change their name while still heading in the same way.
  A huge problem-creator is that Père Lachaise isn’t organized like a city, with storefronts on the avenues.  Instead, it’s carved into ‘divisions’ which are the plots of land in-between the avenues.  These divisions all have different shapes and sizes, and each one of the divisions contains thousands of graves.  A paper map will get Dora fustratingly close to the site she wants to see, but it will remain out of reach almost all of the time.  She’ll probably bump haphazardly into Wilde or Colette.  There’s no way she’s finding Piaf, Modigliani, Chopin, Morrison or hundreds more that will miss her gaze as she turns her paper uselessly before her nose.
rating: 1 tombstone

The Bookworm

  This person not only has a map, they have a book, containing pictures of the graves and information about the departed.  Well, I guess they could play the match game, where they look at the photo, then glance around them to see if anything looks like the picture.  In French the game is called “Qui Est-Ce?”  This isn’t child’s play.  It’s an exercise in futility.
  Heck, even I wrote a book about Père Lachaise, called “The Chairfather.”  I carry no illusions that the book will help anybody find the sites; it won’t.  It’s a comedic recollection for folks who are familiar with the place, and a tongue-in-cheek text for fans who already know the life stories of the stars.  The Chairfather photo book does have pictures of four dozen tombs, but the photo will only help you distinguish the right one if you’re practically on top of it.
  At least the Bookworm has the stories.  But they might as well read them in the Jardin de Luxembourg, for all the good the book does them in getting to the tombs.  They’ll remain forever far from the people in the tales.
rating: 3 tombstones

The Geek

  “There’s an App for that.”  Uh, no.  Google Maps?  Useless at Père Lachaise.  What about any of the four with ‘Lachaise’ in the title in the iOS App Store?  They all have the same flaw: total reliance on GPS.  Also, they’re not all in the same category, spreading across Entertainment, Reference, Travel and Navigation. This means they don’t all have the ambition of getting you to the sites.  You’re on your own.
  The best Père Lachaise navigation App I’ve found is called “Super Lachaise” and it was developed by a guy I used to work with in Paris.  I use it myself when I want to find a site that’s not among the 50 on my own tours.  It gets me near the right tomb about half the time.  Why only a 50% success rate, for somebody who’s been all over Père Lachaise at least a hundred times?  It’s that civil GPS systems are still woefully inaccurate for this purpose.
  An example.  Let’s be generous and say your phone’s GPS gets you within 10 meters (or 30 feet) of your target.  That puts you in a space of 314 square meters (A=pi*r2).  Do you know how many graves you can have within 314 square meters at Père Lachaise?  ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY.  1 – 5 – 0.  No App will get you close enough.  Only a trusted voice can take you the last several steps to your rendez-vous.
rating: 6 tombstones

The Pack Rat

  This person thought ahead, and reserved a guided tour.  They joined the pack and followed an expert.  They are guaranteed to see at least a dozen of the sites, and hear fascinating stories about the people underground.  They won’t get to choose which people they’ll visit, nor what day or time it starts.  They’ll pay a pretty penny for the privilege, about €20 per hour.  But it will be worth it.
rating: 12 tombstones

There is a better way…

What can you do if a guide isn’t available when you want them, or in the language you speak?  What if you have very limited time, less than an hour?  What if you have just a handful of specific sites you want to get to, right away, at 9:30 a.m. before you need to check out of your hotel and catch your flight?

There is a better way, and the folks @VoiceMap have found it.  It’s more than an App.  In addition to GPS, they record the voice of expert guides.  The expert’s voice takes you those last 10 meters, so you’re never lost.  The tour starts right when you want, no waiting for a guide, and you proceed at your own pace.

But that’s just the beginning of the journey.  While you’re at each site, a story unfolds in your ears.  A narrator speaks while the live-action movie passes before your eyes.  It’s an immersive experience unlike any other, personal and intimate. It will make your time at Père Lachaise unforgettable!

A VoiceMap tour costs a fraction of the price of a guide.  Don’t waste your precious vacation days like the 5 profiles above.  Get right to where you want to go, in carefree style.  Listen to The Chairfather.

rating: 50 tombstones

(this is the number of sites The Chairfather will guide you to in under 3 hours)

 

I’ll guide you to final resting places on my VoiceMap tours of the Père Lachaise cemetery, and recite stories from the lives of these notable personalities.

© Copyright Joe Start. All rights reserved. © 2018



 

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Thanksgiving

Although Bleu didn’t come over on the Mayflower, he snuck in under a pilgrim chapeau on a subsequent trip.  He was fleeing persecution for his beliefs, which are “I get whatever I want, whenever I want.”  Thanksgivingly, his new home has enabled Bleu to live his lifestyle choice to the fullest.

For your reading pleasure, here’s an article which appeared this week in the USA Today with a picture from fellow author and expat Jeff Steiner:

Thanksgiving in Europe: Good luck finding a turkey and all the trimmings


 

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French License how-to

My book French License isn’t a how-to. It’s a humorous memoir about an expat trying to cope abroad. Half the book is about other funny things that happened along the way.
However, going through the experience the hard way has made me a bit more knowledgeable than the average California bear.  So, I’ve been asked to give presentations to fellow expats who are just as stuck as I was, and looking desperately for solutions.  Do I exaggerate ?  A few stats about the process:

‘Code’ written test has a lower pass rate than the NY bar exam

Costs more than 2 new iPhones

Takes longer than the Voyager 1 trip to Saturn

A good dozen people attended my presentation « Getting your French Driver’s License » last night at the American Library in Paris.  There were horror stories, and a glimpse of hope from some who were approaching the grail.
I’m happy to share the PDF of the presentation for those who couldn’t make it.  Simply add your e-mail below, and let me know you’d like a copy.

© Copyright Joe Start. All rights reserved. © 2017



 

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In Good We Trust

Why didn’t I hear about this shop before?  Probably because it opened just last year.  I’ve been a customer of American-style general stores in Paris like the Real McCoy, but usually in November, when price is less a consideration than getting THE right stuff(ing) for a Thanksgiving dinner.  The rest of the year, I can survive without a $10 box of Fruit Loops.

Yes, they have all the junk food, cereals and sodas we Americans grew up with.  But the big surprise is all the stuff from artisan producers that I’ve never heard of.  Craft beer brewers.  Small batch sauces and toppings.  Specialty soda fountain drinks.  And reasonably priced wines like zinfandels which are either hard-to-find in Paris, or cost an arm and a leg.  This shop has done a fine job of curating unique items.  Well worth the trip, you’re sure to discover a new favorite.

Go by and check them out.  They just opened for the day.  Yes, they’re open on Sunday!  What a country!

In Good We Trust

Métro Châtelet – Les Halles

67 Rue Quincampoix, 75003 Paris
Tel : +33 1 40 27 91 87

Nous contacter

© Copyright Joe Start. All rights reserved. © 2017



 

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give Anne an earful

French roads are becoming more pecuniary and pénible.  The worst changes are happening to drivers in Paris.  Car-sharing service Heetch was shut down by a court decision, forcing them to pay €500K in fines and court fees.  The judge saw a big difference between BlaBlaCar’s model, where the driver decides the route, and Heech’s, where the passenger decides, like in a taxi.

In 2014, Paris elected a new mayor, Anne Hidalgo.  She’s from the socialist party, or the PS, on the left, so you’d expect her to be more concerned with ecological issues, and have a people-pleasing manner.  Well, she’s one out of two.  If Ralph Nader had a child with Napoleon, it would be her.

While many residents agree that changes in transportation should be made toward alternatives causing less pollution and noise, citizens expect advanced notice, to have their views heard, and a time to adapt.  That’s not what you get with Ms. Hidalgo.  She dictates new measures which are confusing to follow, much less adhere to, and they take immediate effect with severe penalties for non-compliance.  Her public enemy number one: the automobile.

Auto access to the capital has been drastically reduced.  No cars older than 20 years may enter the city limits.  That’s 10% of all cars.  Bus access to the capital has also diminished, as 26% of busses are 20 years old.  Mass confusion ensued.  It’s not as if you can sell or exchange your car right away, or easily alter your mode of transportation with a snap of the fingers.  Tour groups from foreign countries which plan group excursions months in advance only discovered the new legislation upon entering the city.  What a way to welcome tourists to the most visited city in the world.  A city which is going to host the 2024 Olympic Games.  Since Ms. Hidalgo’s measures began, a new record was set with 484 kilometers of traffic jams around Paris.  Commuters spent 90 hours in Parisian traffic jams in 2016, which is 12 1/2 hours more in one year, a 16% increase.

Once they are authorized to enter, and newer cars and buses finally get into the city, there’s fewer places they can legally go.  The widest street in the capital, the Champs-Elysées, becomes pedestrian only on the first Sunday of every month.  This isn’t widely known, nor is it noted with signs on the way there.  You just drive along until you meet a barrier, without any suggested deviation.  Then you follow a line of similarly blocked cars into another barrier.  There’s nowhere for you to go, and no instructions out of the labyrinth.  You’ve just been Hidalgoed!

Every day of every month, the three kilometers of lanes along the river, known as voies sur berge de la Seine, have been converted to pedestrian-only.  While that now makes it a bit wider to stroll along the banks of the river, it’s still visually concrete, asphalt and block walls.  Inland from the river, along sidewalk cafés and street benches, is now a maelstrom of motor noise (+125%), honking and exhaust.  These major arteries were shut off without thought as to where all the cars would go, 43 000 per day.  The result is that in six months, there’s been an enormous shift of traffic going by the streets of the interior, taking up to 73% longer to cross.  This shift included an overnight 88% increase in traffic on the street passing right in front of City Hall.  Maybe the mayor appreciates a close-up view of the mayhem she causes?

How effective are Ms. Hidalgo’s measures?  Well, for one, reducing the speed limit on all 35 kilometers of the Péripherique from 80km/h to 70km/h has only made things worse.  Traffic became bunched up and less fluid, more fuel is consumed, pollution has increased and there are more accidents.  There are more tickets issued, so the government’s revenues go up, but drivers are unnecessarily penalized and residents receive zero benefit.

A similar measure in the city of Rennes, France was finally scrapped when a study proved no benefit to reducing the speed limit to 70km/h.  No bother, Ms. Hidalgo persists, insisting there have been unproven improvements.

Ms. Hidalgo’s fellow PS partisan, former environment minister Ségolene Royale, introduced new emissions tagging legislation with the same confusion and lack of preparation.  Initially, Paris reacted to pollution peaks by a system called circulation alternée, restricting or penalizing cars.  Odd license plates were allowed into the city on odd-numbered days of the month.  Even on even.  But what constitutes odd and even on a French license plate?  If it’s the last number on a plate, well, entire ‘départements’ could be restricted.  This is because a large number of license plates in France end with the two numbers which commence their postal code.  Folks from the Val-d’Oise (95) must keep their cars out of Paris on even days; folks from the Yvelines (78) must stay out on odd days.  And what about those who live in Paris (75)?  Must they drive out of the city to park on even days?  Isn’t the whole idea to get LESS people using cars?

What replaced ‘alternate circulation’ was a series of five color-coded stickers, called Crit’Air.  You go online and type in your car’s details, and pay €4.18, then you receive the sticker corresponding to your vehicle’s propensity to pollute.  You must display the sticker on your car or risk getting fined when you enter Paris.  While having very little impact on the quality of the air, Crit’Air does substantially grow the State’s coffers.  Only five days after its introduction, €4 Million in new funds were collected from drivers.

If you think to yourself, “Crit’Air doesn’t affect me because I don’t live in the Paris region,” think again.  It applies to any car which drives into Paris, or other major French cities, even once.  If you’re from Dijon and you drive to Grenoble once a year, they expect you to have the sticker.  If you’re from the UK, or Belgium or the Netherlands, it applies to your trip to Lyon, too.  German cities thought this was such a good idea, they adopted a similar system for Berlin… with a different sticker, of course.  Soon European delivery drivers won’t be able to see out of their windshield with all the stickers they’ll need for every municipality.

An anti-car bombshell was announced in July by Madame Royale’s replacement, Nicolas Hulot.  By 2040, France plans to outright ban diesel cars, AND all gasoline-powered cars as well.  The sale of fuel for these cars will also be prohibited.  They expect that in 23 years, 99% of all cars currently on the roads will be replaced by electric, or clean-fuel alternatives. Mayor Hidalgo upped the ante by expressing her goal of banning all gasoline cars in 13 years, and diesel vehicles in 3 years.  More than half of all cars on the road today in the Paris region run on diesel.

These officials have too much faith in technology.  The internet is around 23 years old.  Yet many, many organizations today are still dependent on legacy systems, notably government agencies.  They know there’s no way they can reach their goal, nor are they putting alternative measures in place to make it even remotely achievable.

Security cameras installed on streetlamps can now be used to dole out tickets, without warning.  These ones have actual humans behind the screens looking for one false move.  In Paris alone, 1 200 cameras have enabled watchful authorities to dole out more than 150 000 tickets for such infractions as not wearing a seatbelt or eating while driving.  It’s not just suspect streets like la rue de la Grande-Truanderie (Great Gangsterism road) or la rue des Mauvais-Garçons (Bad Boy road).  The Parisian police suspect we’re ALL criminals.  More cameras will be installed near the Charles De Gaulle airport.  Big Brother is now Grand Frère Jacques, and he’s never sleeping.

European states have started sharing data with each other in an attempt to catch radar speeders with out-of-country plates.  This move was covered in my previous post ‘Frontier Land.’  Employers are now obligated to denounce their employees for radar pictures of a company car speeding.

Private companies are being deployed to manage and increase the number of mobile radars, and use them aboard common cars to trap unsuspecting motorists.  In a 2016 test, these unmarked cars flashed 1,9 million times.  Now, all 383 cars will be deployed in September 2017, and should easily capture an additional 15 million infractions annually, on top of the 20 million already from the fixed radars.  France was already the most pecuniary country in the world for motorists.  Now, they stand poised to double the amount they collect from fines in a single year.

A backlash is inevitable.  It’s starting with an initiative by 40 millions d’automobilistes.  The association encourages all concerned citizens to massively telephone Anne Hidalgo at +33 1 42 76 48 11 and let her know how you feel.

The automobile used to be a symbol of freedom, of pleasure and shared sensations.  Today, it’s simply the quickest way between point A (the authorities) and point B (your wallet).

 

© Copyright Joe Start. All rights reserved. Copyright © 2017

Portions of this post were re-printed from the book French License.



 

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Ch. 2 teaser

We landed in France during their worst Heat wave, so that’s the title of the 2nd chapter of French License.  Adjusting as an expat is never easy, but at least we found a place in a nice town.

Here’s an extract, about Le Vésinet:

“The lot with the two homes was formerly attached to an even larger mansion on a bigger plot next-door.  Sometime ago the person who inherited the huge mansion sold off a section of his lot, the part with the house his groundskeeper lived in.  The new plot was so big there was still room to build another huge house in front.  This became 14 bis.

Bis means ‘also.’  That’s because there was already a number 14 for that street- the 19th century mansion.  The original city planners assigned lots next to each other a two digit difference in address no matter how big the lots were.  This left no room for new numbers when the lots were split up.   This is very common in suburban areas in the countryside in France.  Yet another subdivision was called 14 ‘ter,’ which is kind of like third.  This makes it very fun on a hot day in the middle of August, when you arrive relieved at the number you were seeking, only to learn the house is still two doors down.”

You can read the full chapter for free in the online sample.



 

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Ch. 3 teaser

Meet the Fait Accompli, the world’s most mediocre vehicle.  In French License chapter 3 you’ll also meet many characters I’ll adapt to in a middling manner, including my co-workers and my keyboard.

Here’s an extract:

My keyboard didn’t have the familiar Q-W-E-R-T-Y letters in the upper-left-hand corner.  Instead it read ‘A-Z-E-R-T-Y’  The letters Q and Z are so prevalent they’re worth nothing in French scrabble.  So, their placement on the keyboard was swapped with the A and W, respectively.  The M was also moved, along with other characters popular in English.  Maybe the inventor was trying to avoid being labeled a ‘bqstqrd son of q zhore.’

You can read the full chapter for free in the online sample.



 

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Ch. 4 teaser

Here’s where it starts to unravel. Chapter 1 of French License shows how alike France is to California. “Can’t you give a brother a break?” I ask, wondering how my similar experience warrants a zero. Chapter 4’s Idiot synchracies uncovers the dissimilarities of driving in France. For roundabouts, it’s “vive la différence.” For nearly everything else, it’s “where’s the exit?”

Here’s an extract:

“When your trip on one of these secondary roads takes you through a strange town and you’re unsure where to turn next, there’s a helpful sign that will inevitably turn up, indicating ‘TOUTES DIRECTIONS.’  This means ‘all directions.’  “Nothing to see here.  Just pass through.  I don’t care where you’re going to, it’s obviously this way.”  So, you comply and, sure enough, a bit farther up the road, your next waypoint is clearly marked, and you breeze along, confident you will arrive at your destination.

Until you once again come across the now-familiar ‘TOUTES DIRECTIONS‘ arrow, pointing to the right.  You’re about to head that way when you notice another sign just next to it, labeled ‘AUTRES DIRECTIONS‘ pointing to the left.  This, of course, means ‘other directions.’  How, you ponder, does ‘all‘ differ from ‘other?’

Being well-schooled in philosophy, the French driver in front of you speeds on.  Scratching your Yankee head, you pull to the side of the road and wait for the mass-market adoption of GPS.”

This is the last chapter that you can read for free in the online sample.  The extract is only four chapters out of 40+ so I guarantee you TEN TIMES the laughs when you buy the whole book!



 

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Ch. 5 teaser

The customer is always wrong in this chapter of French License.  It’s a ‘dialogue des sourds,’ or a conversation between deaf people.

It reminds me of the responses Willy Wonka gave to questions.  He never answered directly, completely, nor with sincerity nor empathy.  He simply strung the asker along, bewildering them with unhelpful words, while leading them into danger.

I love Gene Wilder, but that movie gave me the creeps, his interpretation especially.  I didn’t want Charlie to follow to the end.  I wish he would have told Willy to take a hike with all his shenanigans, and exited out a side door to go back home with his grandfather.  Maybe that’s what I should have done in this chapter.



 

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