Zéro déchet in Versailles

Versailles.  Known to most folks outside of France as the bit of earth upon which stands that gaudy monstrosity of a castle.  However within France it’s also known for being a very conservative community.  Churches and convents abound.  There are two that offer Mass in Latin.  The resident citizens tend to vote on the Right side of the political spectrum.

So should you park your progressive politics and take off your Birkenstocks before entering?

Not at all.  Versailles is a good example of how political labels are deceptive.  This is hands down the greenest city I’ve ever lived in, and that includes my hometown of Seattle.   The public servants in Versailles have done an amazing job of making it so.

There is a municipal recycling program, of course, with weekly home pickup.  And a municipal composting program with home pickup of garden waste that returns to the residents in the form of  free compost.  There is yet another city sponsored program to put backyard chickens in the yards of homeowners.  At ten euros for two healthy, vaccinated gallus gallus domesticus, any resident can afford them.

In the parks, gardens, and green spaces you can see the results of a rethinking by the city gardeners.  There are more drought resistant plants, more mulch, and more trees.  The grass in the green spaces is mowed less often and some areas are left alone to form small meadows.  In the Domaine de Madame Elizabeth (sister to Louis XVI) a flock of sheep trim the grass.

A month or so ago I watched workers tear off the concrete on a traffic divider on one of our busiest streets in order to plant a very pretty, low-growing ground cover.  Last week I visited a relatively new park and shopping area called the Cour des Senteurs which has lovely gardens and a communal compost area for the nearby apartment dwellers.

What is the next frontier?   According to a recent mailing from the city, we now aspire to become a Territoire Zéro Déchet Zéro Gaspillage, known in anglophone world as “zero waste.”  You can download their handy guide here.

This initiative tackles the issue of waste, especially food waste.  It builds on existing programs like recycling, compost, and chickens, but takes it a step further with ecogestes to conserve water, reduce pollution, and minimize purchases and packaging.

Will people actually do any of these things?  Yes, they will for a number of reasons.  Zero waste is the perfect marriage between old and new ways of thinking – between old ideas about frugality and modern ones about “going green.”

Again, political labels are useless here.  Aside from any of the benefits to the environment, just the idea of saving a few bucks is very appealing even for the relatively affluent conservative voter.  I saw this with my grandmother in Seattle many years ago. Grandma became an avid recycler because she was able to trade in her big garbage bin for a smaller one that had lower pickup fees.

Zero waste also values an mentality still possessed by older residents who remember times of relative deprivation.  For someone who has vivid memories of World War II like my mother-in-law, all of this is very familiar and it’s stuff that she has always done:  reuse plastic bags, freeze leftover baguettes, save leftovers for the next meal, and so on.

So, if you want time-honored tips for going zero waste,  talk to your grandparents or anyone you know from that generation.  The act of asking your elders for advice is one of the best, concrete expressions of “family values” that I can think of.  And doing it is not likely to start a fight at the Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner table.

If you are interested in knowing more about zero waste in France, there is a podcast I enjoy called Mouvements Zéro which is in French.  For you anglophones, give  Practical(ly) Zero Waste a listen.

The Death of Local Commerce?

I walk my neighborhood at least six days a week.  Easiest way I know to stay fit, and probably the most pleasant.  Porchefontaine is lovely and there is always something to see and people to talk with.  A great antidote both for what ails me and for the social isolation that comes from being chronically ill and best friends with my couch.

Once upon a time this area was farms and wasn’t part of Versailles at all.  The developers came many years ago and since then it’s been a slum and later a modest working-class area with small houses like mine, but usually with two stories and not just one. Small footprints, big gardens.  City services like the sewer system didn’t arrive until 1928.  More recently, the city is finally getting around to burying the overhead power lines that you used to see on every street.

Gentrification has certainly has been a part of the life of the neighborhood in more recent years.  But it is happening slowly, I think because while the house are nice, they are not that nice.  Walk toward the castle and you will start to see some beautiful homes with named architects in what are, frankly, better neighborhoods.

Picking three words to describe this quartier I would pick “charming,” “modest,” and “practical.”  The last because of the best features of this area is a kind of village center – a couple of streets with small businesses.  I think this is what the British call a “high street.” I rarely go into the center of Versailles because so much of what I need is just a short walk away.

There are signs, however, that all is not well in the little world of Porchefontaine commerce.  The only presse (newspapers, magazines, office supplies) which has been around for many years closed  a few months ago.  The last butcher and florist are gone, gone, gone.  Newer businesses like the nail shop, a fast food restaurant, and the fancy cookie store also closed.  Yesterday, I talked to the local esthéticienne and she is retiring early next year.

That is a lot to lose in a very short period of time and residents are concerned about it.  As for the business owners, feels like mild panic to me.  They are organizing.

Do an internet search and you’ll easily find communities all over the world watching the slow death of local commerce.  Some blame the Internet which is surely part of it.  The other day during my morning walk I watched a truck pull up on a small street.  The driver got out and I saw him haul out a big pile of Amazon packages which he then distributed to different houses.  Yes, people here have Prime.

But the Internet can’t be all of the story.  Yes, we can wring our hands and moan about larger forces but the local and particular matter, too.  There are goods and services for which the rise of e-business is irrelevant. Let’s look past what was lost and consider what remains and is working just fine.  We have three bakeries, three food stores (one bio), three hair dressers, three bar/tabacs, two dry cleaners, two pharmacies, several restaurants, doctors’ and nurses’ offices here and there, and miscellaneous things like a home security business that sells alarms and shutters.  There is a farmer’s market twice a week.

What do they all have in common?  For one, with a couple of exceptions, they offer services or special products.  Amazon can’t cut my hair, dry clean my clothes or serve me a coffee.  If I buy a baguette from my favorite bakery in the morning, it’s fresh and still warm from the oven and goes perfectly with a couple of fresh eggs provided by my chickens. I don’t see how any e-entrepreneur can top that for quality, convenience, or price.  Furthermore, I don’t buy the cheapest baguette but what I do buy costs only 1.35 euros (USD 1.50). And when I am cooking for one, the bakers are happy to sell me half:  a demi-baguette.  Good bread for less than a dollar a day.

Service or what you can call the “customer experience” matters now more than ever.  Now, I know that France doesn’t have the best reputation in this regard. But it has always been the strength of the local and that’s just as true in France as it is elsewhere.  I certainly have no cause for complaint in my little corner of the Hexagon.

All the businesses I frequent have owners who know my face, and most know my name.  The owner of the bio store knows that I like a particular kind of little apple, and he took the time the other day to pick out the nicest, freshest ones for me.  I only bought three of them.  But he knows I will be back.  We always chat and it’s not just him.  In the local stores that receive my custom there are pleasant conversations and a sense that I am recognized as a human being and not just another random stranger with a debit card.

Lastly, what I think the successful businesses here have in common is what you could call “curb appeal.”  The windows are always washed, the entry and floors are clean, and there are attractive displays in the windows that change with the seasons. When possible some businesses spill over into the sidewalk with a nice presentation of fruits and vegetables for example.  You are rewarded for going inside with the smell of fresh bread, spices, fruit…  These are the businesses that make the entire street sparkle and shine.  This is why my morning walk almost always includes a stroll down the main street.

My take on it is that some of the businesses that closed were lacking in one or more of the above.  The services and services they offered just didn’t appeal to the folks here or there wasn’t enough business to support, say, three (instead of two) places that do nails. There was one place which I will not name where I picked up things from time to time but I hated going in there.  It was dirty, smelled bad, and it was so disorganized that it was painful to peruse the shelves.  Not worth it and, yep, everything they stocked could be had much cheaper on Amazon.

My perspective is that of a customer and a local resident.  Surely, there is more to it that I don’t see and I hope those of you who are business owners will forgive my ignorance.  I have no idea what the average rent for commercial spaces in the area is. I also have no idea what they pay in local and national taxes or the regulations they operate under.  I do appreciate that it’s hard to start a business here, hard to keep it going, and so easy to fail.   My greatest fear is not that local businesses are closing.  I worry more that people will give up and stop opening them.  Empty commercial spaces with fewer shoppers because “il n’y a plus rien.”  That would be the true death of the local.

I don’t want that to happen and I am assuming that the other residents of the neighborhood feel the same way.  That may not be true.  One person at church I spoke to claimed that part of the problem was the Catholic familles nombreuses who, for reasons of economy and in spite of having at least one parent at home, buy primarily in bulk on-line or at one of the major hypermarket chains. A quick look at the population stats for Versailles reveals that most people here work and many commute into Paris every day.  For them, Porchefontaine is a “bedroom community” like any other suburb. Five days out of seven, they are somewhere else and most only return late in the evening when the stores are closed.

So it feels like there is some combination of social, economic, demographic, technology forces behind all this.  A suivre and if you feel inspired I’d be very interested in hearing about the state of local commerce in your neighborhood and what, if anything, is being done if it is suffering.

Three Cities, Three Memories

Seattle, USA – sometime in the 1980s

Disco had died and grunge was just getting started.  The socially inept, and those of us pretending to be serious students, could still play speed chess at coffee shops like The Last Exit on Brooklyn.  We sipped our coffee while skipping classes because we had far more important things to do like prove our intellectual prowess in endless polemical debates, and throw about whatever names we had picked up in the few classes we actually showed up for.  If we could score at the same time, all the better.  More than one scruffy long-haired gentleman or Birkenstock shod damsel did very well with the opposite (or same) sex on the basis of the ability to spin a good argument and reference the approved literature – mostly dead French philosophers.  

People in Seattle were very serious about not taking things seriously.  Tucked up in that little northwest corner of the United States, it was far enough from Washington and the Wicked East so that everyone felt pretty safe sticking their finger in the eye of authority and having some fun doing it.   The real enemy was California and all those awful immigrants fleeing Lotus Land and driving housing prices through the roof.  A columnist in the local newspaper led a campaign to convince them to stay home where they belonged;  but his ire had a tongue-in-cheek tone to it and we all had a good laugh while we sold our houses to them for wildly inflated prices.

I worked at being a sexy Seattle student:  I haunted the bookstores, smoked my clove cigarettes, and shopped at Goodwill (or Nordstrom) like every young female in my age cohort; but that didn’t mean I was above resorting to animal-tested chemical products.  When my Nordic genes lost the battle and my hair went from blond to dirty dishwasher brown, I started dyeing it.  Following the code of not-so-serious delicious difference, I didn’t just color it (so middle-class) I had to have a short flaming auburn do, a tail of many colors, and a white streak flowing along my bangs from the part to my ear highlighting the three fake gold stud earrings on each side.

The man who made this possible, who made me, in fact, look far better than I deserved, was my hairdresser at Chris’ hair salon on Capitol Hill.  The prices were good but the company was even better.  Like the coffee shops, it was a place where the chatter never stopped and the clients and the stylists happily interrupted each other’s conversations to make a point or a throw out a witty riposte.  What the client walked out with was the result of a collaboration between the client and the stylist.  I told Roger what I had in mind and then he gave me his opinion and we went back and forth until we were mutually satisfied.

“Relax.  It’s hair.  It grows out.”  Such reassuring words for an insecure young woman with an intellectual superiority complex – one who wanted so desperately to be different like everybody else, but who also wanted someone to hold her hand while she was plumbing the depths of la Différence.

Suresnes, France-  sometime in the first decade of the 21st century

Suresnes, a city of 45,000 people on the outskirts of Paris:  a banlieue that was both too close and too far from the big city.  Too close to afford a house and a garden;  too far to be able to see a movie, go to a museum or have a coffee on a nice tree-lined boulevard.

Some of the architecture was interesting, most of it resembled upscale versions of the HLMs (low-income housing) in the poorer suburbs.  The denizens all dressed alike.  For work the men wore dark suits, and the women wore short black skirts and white blouses with blazers – the chador would have been a fashion revolution, and would have at least added an element of interest to this bleak and boring style parade.

It was a middle-class city which meant the worst of all worlds.  A little more money would have bought luxury, a little less might have meant some fun.  The middle gets neither of these things – just inconvenience, avarice and insecurity.

It was a place with a lot of  implicit rules enforced mostly with sharp glares and sniffs.  When that didn’t suffice, the indirect agressive approach was used – the appeal to authority.  Put the bike or the laundry out on the balcony and one could expect a visit forthwith from the gardien.  Not his idea, but always the result of a complaint from someone in the building who wasn’t brave enough to knock on someone’s door and talk to them directly.  

These rules, never openly outlined for a newcomer, had to be learned though torturous negative feedback.  I removed all but one of the stud earrings. I bought black skirts, white blouses and heels in order to blend better.  I learned to walk at a fast clip down the street, looking straight ahead and never smiling or starting a conversation with anyone.  And when I was about to lose my mind in that intellectual desert, I went into Paris and walked the streets dreaming of coffee-houses and chess players.

One cultural academy where this young migrant picked up some of those unwritten laws was the hair salon.  This is where I learned that the customer is an idiot.  Here is the expert coiffeur standing behind the client who knows nothing and can be counted on only to make very bad choices and must be educated.  “I’d like it short, please,” says the timid young American woman with roots that must be covered before the job interview.  “No, Madame! You’ll look like a boy.” cries the coiffeuse.  “But I like it short, ” says the American woman who has the mistaken impression that what she wants matters here.  (She was also thinking that if having short hair meant she looked like a boy then the men she has met so far in France are gay.)   “I won’t cut it that way,” snorts the hair stylist, and that was the end of that.

Yesterday in Osaka, Japan 

Osaka is a big city in the Kansai region of Japan.  Looking at it from above, it’s a concrete jungle – grey and Stalinesque.  Go down to street-level, however, and it’s filled with shops and bustling, busy streets.  Since it’s flat walking is easy but watch out for the bicycles.  These people are demon drivers and when one hears the “dring” of a bell behind, it behooves the poor pedestrian to move quickly to the left.

I’ve only been here two months which is far too short a time to say much more.  But yesterday a haircut and color was necessary.  My natural color of muddy-brown hair is only a distant memory now, and what remains when I dare to look closely is salt and pepper.

I made the appointment in the morning and arrived at 3:30 sharp in the afternoon.  The receptionist whisked away my purse and coat and I was ushered immediately  to a chair where I met the stylist, a very competent English speaker.  And there I refound my whimsy and desire do things a little differently.  “Red,” I said.  “And short, please.”  To my delight he agreed and then he deftly steered me to a color he thought was right for me.

Appeased, I stopped thinking and started enjoying the experience.  It was beautifully coordinated with one person adroitly picking up where the other left off.   At every step in the process I was asked if I was comfortable and was there anything I needed.  I was a bit startled by this and couldn’t think of anything.  Sometimes just having someone listen is everything.

So now I’m a redhead with boyish short hair.  It’s not the same cut as I had in Seattle, but then I’m not in Seattle and I am not 20 years old.  I’m here, loving where I’m from and trying to bloom yet again where I’ve been planted.

A Truly Great Garage Sale

 It’s that time of year again – the annual Porchefontaine vide-grenier (garage sale).

I went last year and it was fabulous.  They close off the streets just past the Porchefontaine train station (RER C line ) and by mid-morning it’s packed with stands and folks out there looking for goodies.

It’s organized by a neighborhood association, CLAP (Comité de Loisirs et d’Animation de Porchefontaine).  Porchefontaine in Versailles is  like a village within the larger city with its own newspaper (l’Écho des Nouettes) and lots of civic-minded individuals who really care about their quartier.  In addition to the annual garage sale they also organize: a Saint Valentine’s celebration, a children’s carnival, a plant swap, a toy fair, neighborhood cocktail parties and much more.

What made it fun for me last year?  Walking along the streets and meeting people I knew from church or local businesses I frequent.  Also meeting folks I didn’t know in a very relaxed and convivial atmosphere.  It’s a “come as you are” sort of thing – wear jeans/shorts, t-shirts and tennis shoes and you’ll fit right in.

I will be out there at 8:00 sharp Sunday morning.  To see what last year’s finds looked like, here’s the 2013 post.

Bon weekend!

How to be Uninsured in France

Well, this is a fine situation.  I’m not sure how it happened but I apparently have no health insurance here right now.

Just before we left for Canada I received an urgent note from the cancer clinic saying that they needed an attestation, a piece of paper that confirms that I am indeed covered by the French national health insurance.  I found that odd because in 2012 I was  accorded something called the 100% which covers my care through my cancer treatment (five years).

My spouse was in the neighborhood of the social security center so he went and asked for the document and they replied that we should just go into ameli (a website for the insured where you can do basic stuff like payment info and address changes) and download it.  Well, we tried and the darn system said, “Sorry, no can do.  Come down and see us.”


So on the way back from church and my weekly visit with Madame G I stopped by to see what was up.

After giving the lady at the counter my insurance card and the note from the clinic,  she consulted my account.

“You have no rights!” she said.  And I said, “What?

And then we tried to figure out what happened.  Do you work?  said she.  No, I replied.  Are you getting unemployment?  No.  What are you doing then?  Uh, living?

I swear that the woman was more upset than I was.  At one point I said, “C’est pas grave.” (It’s not a big deal) and she shot back, “Oh, yes it is, Madame.”

Here’s the deal.  I was covered for two years after I took myself off unemployment at which point I should have gone down and had myself added under my spouse’s social security number.  I didn’t know, there wasn’t any notification and so they just cut me off.

All fixable.  She gave me a form (isn’t there always a form?) and a list of documents to gather and bring back to them and then they’ll work their magic so I will be insured again.  I thanked her profusely for her kindness and went home and had coffee on my back porch.

Another bit of business to add to the already very heavy load of paperwork to be done this month.  For those of you not in the know June 15 is the date for Americans abroad to either file their US taxes or ask for an extension.  June 30, of course, is the date to file those loathsome FBAR’s (Foreign Bank Account Reports).

The French taxes have already been filed.  All on-line and the few questions we had were ably answered by a nice gentleman at the local tax office.

Looking at all this I find it interesting that on the French side none of this administrative stuff stresses me out.  Systems and procedures are not always well-designed but there is access to real live competent human beings when there is an issue.  Above all, is the sense that they are on my side.  They want me to be insured and they want me to pay my taxes (and, yes, I do see the connection between the two).  And there are people available to help to make both of those things happen.

On the American side is, well, not much trust at all.  Just a lot of stress when I look at the arcane language of the documents designed to “help”; a certain frustration with systems that don’t work very well (I had to contact tech support via email last year for the on-line FBAR);  and above all precious few human beings to talk to if something does go wrong.  Not the fault of the US government agencies, by the way, but of their political overlords who seem to think that handing them major legislation to implement and then starving them for funds will have some sort of beneficial outcome.  How they think they can square that circle is beyond me.

I don’t like to make comparisons between my home and host country – it is unfair because different doesn’t mean better.  It’s entirely possible to have divergent means to reach similar objectives.  But I have this uneasy feeling that efficient delivery of public services by dedicated, independent, and competent people (folks mandated to do their very best to help their fellow citizens navigate the systems that lawmakers have made) has been under attack for some time now and we are now in a vicious circle where because there are limited funds, service is poor; and so the average American is left wondering why he should pay taxes at all.

I find it rather ironic that here I am in France – a legal resident but not a citizen – and I have more faith and trust in the French bureaucracy then I do in that of my native country.  Yes, I have had bad experiences with bureaucrats here but overall it’s been rather good and yesterday’s experience was one exemplary example.

Ronald Reagan once said, “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”  A rather broad indictment that is subject to diverse interpretations.  Let me be very unkind here and note that he said “English language” which implies that it is Anglo-Saxons who are simply incompetent (or have evil motives) when it comes to government.

Rubbish, I say.