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

Saturday, June 30, 2012

The End of Minitel

After 30 years of service the Minitel will be history as of this evening.  I saw my first terminal when I first came to France over 20 years ago and I was impressed.  I was even more so after I read Howard Rheingold's book, The Virtual Community, where he devoted an entire chapter to the Telematique and Messageries Roses.

And to think it all began in 1982 with this device and one service:  an on-line telephone/address directory.



As of right now there are still 800.000 devices out there in homes and offices throughout France. The good news is that they can be recycled - just take them down to an Orange store. Their destiny, however, made me a bit sad, "90% du matériel sont réutilisés, notamment le plastique en pare-choc de voiture." (90% of the materials will be reused, in particular the plastic for car bumpers).

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Meet Accidental American Boris Johnson, Mayor of London

Update:  A kind reader of the Flophouse pointed out an error in the title of this post.  Boris Johnson is the Mayor (not Lord Mayor) of London. "The position of "Lord Mayor of London" is bestowed by the sovereign and is a largely ceremonial position in which the holder represents the "City of London", a much smaller geographical area. Boris is the Mayor of London. The current Lord Mayor of London is David Wootton."  I corrected the post title this morning. 

The United States of America allows for two methods for acquiring U.S. citizenship at birth:  jus sanguinis (through an American citizen parent) and jus soli (through being born on U.S. soil).  For the latter the U.S. has one of the most open-ended and generous terms around - the mere fact of being born on U.S. soil makes someone a U.S. citizen under almost all circumstances. (The only exceptions appear to be children of diplomats.)

Now it's very rare to see Americans grumbling about the transmission of citizenship via jus sanguinis (blood).  And that's a bit odd when you think about it because it's a status that is conferred , not because of anything the child did, but because he had a least one parent with that status.  Sounds strangely medieval, doesn't it?  A little like saying that just because your father (or mother) was a peasant (or a lord), you get to be one too.  How to square that with modern notions of  democracy and voluntary participation in a political community?  I don't think you can - this is citizenship as a kind of aristocracy since it has nothing to do with merit and everything to do with inherited status.  Not to mention that this form of citizenship transmission leads to some very strange situations.  For example, the child of an American citizen born abroad is usually granted U.S. citizenship no questions asked even if that child never sets one foot in the U.S. for his entire life while resident aliens actually living in the U.S. who (one assumes) are delighted to be there have to jump through all sorts of hoops to be naturalized and may still suffer discrimination in the U.S. on the basis of their origins.

The other method of citizenship transmission, jus soli (place of birth), is much more controversial in the U.S.  The media is filled with politicians railing against those "anchor babies" whose mothers allegedly slip over the border to give birth just so their children can be U.S. citizens.  There is a great deal of righteous indignation about this and a modest amount of energy expended to stop it.  However, the problem (and I question whether it really is one) of the "illegals" sneaking over the border to give birth is nothing compared to the millions of tourists, legal immigrants and visa holders who come to the U.S. every year to live and work and who sometimes do a very human thing while they are in the country:  have children.  Many of them merrily go on their way after a few years (back to the home country or to a third country) either not knowing that their children are American citizens or thinking that this citizenship is a status that goes away if it's not activated.   Not true. U.S. citizenship laws are strictly "opt-out" - one is an American citizen until one goes down in person to the local U.S. Embassy and renounces.  This involves filling out forms and paying a 450 USD fee.  It may even involve filing 5 years worth of back tax returns and FBAR's.  This is true even if the person in question was born in the U.S., left with his parents as an infant, and has spent the past 30 years thinking he (or she) is exclusively French, German, Chinese, or Indonesian.  Contrary to what the citizens of the "greatest nation on earth" might think, not everyone is happy to wake up one day and discover that he or she is a citizen of said nation.  Some are even downright angry about it especially when the U.S. attempts to assert its sovereignty over their persons.

Welcome to the world of the "Accidental Americans."  These are people who, through no fault or action of their own (they didn't choose their parents or where they were born) are considered to be U.S. citizens by the U.S. government and are flabbergasted when agents of said government reach out and hold them to the obligations associated with that citizenship.  "But, but, but," you may sputtering at this point, "They can't do that!  I'm French (or British or Chinese or German)."  Oh yes they can, mes amis, and they do.  The consequences of this "involuntary citizenship" can range from being refused entry into the U.S. (even just to make a connection to a third country) without a U.S. passport to being chased down by the American "fisc" for tax returns and reports on their local bank accounts.  The first can be dealt with rather easily - just don't travel anywhere near the U.S.  The second is a little harder to avoid these days since five governments in Europe (others to follow) have agreed to turn over information about these people to the U.S. government.  Yes, this means that European governments will be denouncing their own citizens (duals, mind you, who may not even be aware they are Americans).  This is going to be interesting to watch.

A surprising number of people are at risk here including some very high profile Europeans.  This brings us to the case of one Boris Johnson, Mayor of London.  Up until fairly recently Mr. Johnson was an American citizen because he was born in  New York, USA, something he was vaguely aware of but didn't really pay much attention to until this event in 2006:
"Last Sunday lunchtime we were boarding a flight to Mexico, via Houston, Texas, and we presented six valid British passports. As soon as the Continental Airlines security guy saw my passport, he shook his head. ‘Were you born in New York?’ he asked. ‘Have you ever carried an American passport?’
Yes, I said, but it had long since expired. ‘I am afraid we have a problem,’ he said. ‘The US Immigration say you have to travel on an American passport if you want to enter the United States.’ B-but I’m British, I said, and my children chorused their agreement. Had the guy stuck around a moment longer, I would have told him how jolly British I was — but luckily for him he’d gone off in search of reinforcements.
When the ranking officer arrived, the story was the same. ‘I’m sorry, sir,’ he said, ‘but you’ll have to go to the US Embassy tomorrow morning and get a new American passport.’ But I don’t want an American passport, I said, inspiration striking me. I tell you what: I renounce my American citizenship. I disclaim it. I discard it.
‘That’s not good enough, sir,’ he said. ‘I need some official document saying that you are no longer American...’
You can read the entire story here but the end result of this was, faced with this assertion of U.S. sovereignty over his person, Mr. Johnson decided that it simply wasn't worth it and he renounced.  In his words, "That’s it. Entre nous c’est terminé. After 42 happy years I am getting a divorce from America."

Is Boris Johnson's case really that unusual?  Not at all.   Look, in addition to the millions of tourists and legal residents in the U.S. some of whom will have children there during their stay, there are 6-7 million Americans abroad and many of them have children too (most of their children are also citizens of their country of residence) who are considered to be U.S. citizens by the U.S.  and are supposed to be holding U.S. passports and paying U.S. taxes.  Failure to do this means that these people are technically lawbreakers and tax evaders in the eyes of the U.S. government.  It really is that simple.

Another example close to my heart. Would any French person in the audience like to tell me where Anne Sinclair (famous French celebrity and DSK's wife) was born?  If you answered, "New York, USA," you win the prize.  And that makes Anne Sinclair and her children as American as apple pie and baseball.  If events had gone differently and DSK had won the 2012 French presidential election, France would have had its very own Franco-American First Lady. 

Alas, it was not to be. :-)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Ted Talk: Nikola Tesla - Pure Magic

Pop quiz time at the Flophouse.  Yesterday I took each of the Frenchlings aside and asked them to tell me who Nikola Tesla was.  The elder Frenchling (proud possessor of a "baccalauréat littéraire" also known as a Bac L) didn't have a clue. But the younger Frenchling who is working on her "baccalauréat scientifique" (Bac S) did and almost seemed offended at being asked such an obvious question.

Following this short test I was tempted to make a snide comment about the French educational system since it seemed to me that the history of technology is something that should be part of everyone's "culture générale" and not just confined to the geeks.  Tesla was, after all, one of the great engineers/inventors of our time.  And then I remembered that what I know about Никола Тесла I didn't learn at school either.  I know about him because I come from long line of engineers and other technology workers.  My grandfather was a 30-year veteran of the Boeing Corporation and worked on just about every airplane they produced from the B-17 up to the 747.  My other grandfather worked nearly his entire life for the Army Corps of Engineers.  My father was a computer programmer back in the days of mainframes and punch cards.  My stepfather is a radio engineer.  My mother is a proposal manager at an engineering firm in Seattle.  With a lineage like that how could I have done otherwise than to work in Information Technology?  And is it any surprise that I married a material sciences engineer?  His father, by the way, was an ingénieur de combat (combat engineer) and the commander of:  the Unités du Génie (engineering) in Laos (1953-1956), the Génie of the 20th division in Algeria (1961-1962), the 5ème Régiment du Génie here in Versailles (1962-1965) and, at the end of his career, la Brigade des Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris.

So if the elder Frenchling doesn't know about Nikola Tesla then the fault lies firmly at our door.  How to rectify this?  One place to begin is this wonderful Ted Talk about Tesla's life and work by magician Marco Tempest which captures so well all of the romance, the tragedy and the sheer love of discovery that defined the great engineers/inventors of that time (and ours).   Perfect place to start.  Because as Arthur C. Clarke so rightly said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."




Monday, June 25, 2012

Alcohol Use and Abuse in Europe

A few days ago I made the assertion that alcohol abuse was an important public health issue in Europe and that France was no exception.  Prior to migrating here, I had the impression that somehow the French were exempt from such things as alcoholism since they ostensibly learned to drink moderately and responsibly as youngsters.  With time, I slowly came to the realization that this was not the case at all and I can cite many examples of people I have encountered over the years who clearly did have a problem (even by relatively tolerant French standards).  I'm not talking about clochards sleeping it off in the metro - I'm talking about law-abiding, responsible, successful individuals in positions of power whose daily consumption caused obvious problems at work (and one imagines at home as well).  From where I sit, the "high-functioning alcoholic" is alive and well in the Hexagone.

But that is anecdotal evidence based on experience and not cold hard facts.  If I'm going to make a strong statement about this "problem" then I owe it to you and to myself to back it up.  So I went looking for the report that I mentioned in a prior post. I found it on the Health-EU website and it's called Alcohol in Europe.  Let's start by looking at what this report has to say.

Alcohol is big business in Europe. European countries are leading producers of everything from beer to wine and spirits.  Alcohol sales generate substantial tax revenue for member-states and also represent a major export.  France alone accounted for 24% of world alcohol exports in 2003.  This makes for an interesting conundrum because, against all the economic benefits, states also have to measure the social costs of domestic consumption:
Based on a review of existing studies, the total tangible cost of alcohol to EU society in 2003 was estimated to be €125bn (€79bn-€220bn), equivalent to 1.3% GDP, which is roughly the same value as that found recently for tobacco. The intangible costs show the value people place on pain, suffering and lost life that occurs due to the criminal, social and health harms caused by alcohol. In 2003 these were estimated to be €270bn, with other ways of valuing the same harms producing estimates between €150bn and €760bn...
Reading this it occurred to me that the best strategy for any state with a large alcohol industry might be  indeed to increase exports.  That way states derives many of the economic benefits while merrily displacing all the problems (along with the bottles) in someone else's yard.

About European domestic consumption.  The good news is that it is slowly coming down.  The bad news is that it is still very high. "The European Union is the heaviest drinking region of the world, with each adult drinking 11 litres of pure alcohol each year – a level over two-and-a-half times the rest of the world’s average (WHO 2004)."  Here is a chart that shows EU consumption versus other parts of the world:


Consumption peaked in the 1970's and has been slowly declining ever since.  Now, this figure of 11-13 liters per person per year is an average.  Looking at individual member-states (and even regions within those states) the consumption picture changes dramatically depending on where you are.


But while consumption statistics make for interesting reading, they do not tell the whole story.  Within those numbers, how to determine how many of these drinkers are alcohol dependent or who regularly drink at unsafe levels? (the terms "alcoholic" and "problem drinker" seem to vary according to the cultural context).  Self-reporting is unlikely to be accurate - what sane individual is going to report a daily consumption of, say, 2-3 bottles of wine?  When I was in the U.S. last year I spoke to a family member who works in emergency medicine at a local hospital and he reported that whatever the number of daily drinks reported by the patient, the staff at the hospital multiplied it by 3.  They simply start from the assumption that people lie about this on a regular basis and their experience shows that this is a good strategy. The EU report's guess is that "around 5% of adult men and 1% of adult women are alcohol dependent – that is, 23 million people are addicted to alcohol in any one year."  Again, this is an average and varies widely depending on the country.

To get a good idea of the direct consequences of that consumption and the alcohol dependency rates, let's look at some numbers that are hard to quibble with:  alcohol-related death rates.  These can be found in another EU report called Who dies of what in Europe before the age of 65 published in 2009.  This report focuses on preventable deaths for males in Europe from things like heart disease, certain forms of cancer and, yes, alcohol use.  Here is the map for Alcohol-Related Mortality:


What is fascinating about this map is that France has a upside down u-shaped band of high mortality from alcohol use that starts in Brittany, moves north and comes down through the center of the country where the death rates rival those of Eastern Europe.  What in heaven's name is that all about?  I'm going to look into it and see if I can find more information.  A quick and dirty search of my mental database did not come up with any obvious reason for this.  If any of you have links to share or other resources that would point me in the right direction, please feel free to post them in the comments section.

Interesting data and, I think, very convincing.  Clearly alcohol is an issue in Europe and one that is getting attention from the EU.  See this communication from the European Commission, An EU strategy to support Member States in reducing alcohol related harm, which came out in 2006 for their recommendations for how to tackle the problem.


Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Bald Headed Blues

Well, right on schedule, I am starting to lose my hair.   A few months ago when I was told this was an almost certain consequence of the chemotherapy, I was pretty depressed.  Then a friend passed along this video by the Uppity Blues Women and it lifted my sprits immediately and made the inevitable more palatable. I just hope that when I put on my turban/headscarf and start walking the streets, I won't get in trouble for wearing a "voile" (veil). :-)

I watched the video again this morning and I must say I think these ladies have the right attitude.  Damn right, I'm still here...


Friday, June 22, 2012

Immigrant Job Creators

There is a very good article over at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) about how different countries all around the world are trying to attract those highly-skilled entrepreneurial immigrants with some cash on hand.

It's called Visas for Entrepreneurs: How Countries are Seeking Out Immigrant Job Creators by Madeleine Sumption.  Fascinating look at the different deals countries are willing to make to attract these people using visas that offer very favorable terms for entrepreneurs. This type of immigration tends to be less controversial than other kinds simply because it's pretty tough for even the most die-hard anti-immigrant citizen to complain about an immigrant investor willing to sink hundreds of thousands of Euros into a company that would create jobs for local workers.  There are always a few exceptions to this, of course.  Marine Le Pen of the Front National, for example, has come out in the past against "l'immigration choisie" (selective immigration) and even the Startup Act in the U.S. has its critics.

What is often lost in the national debates on this issue is the international nature of this competition.  This is a very competitive race to attract these potential migrants' attention and encourage them to choose one country over another.  Immigrants are rational actors and have every interest in shopping around to get the best deal.  This is a bitter pill to swallow for those countries who are used to thinking of themselves as choice destinations and are now having to adjust their own self-perceptions to accommodate the fact that they are now just one choice target country among many others.

How sweet are these deals?  Varies by country.  Ireland's Start-up Entrepreneur Programme can be had for as little as 70,000 Euros and does not require the entrepreneur to create any local jobs or even to turn a profit. After five years the investor qualifies for permanent residency in an EU member-state.  That is an incredible deal.   On the other end of the spectrum is Australia's Business Innovation Stream which has more complex requirements:  the migrant must be sponsored by a state/territory within Australia, be under 55 years old, have assets of at least $787,000 USD and create jobs within two years.  See Table 1  (Conditional Entrepreneur Visa Eligibility Criteria) in the MPI article for more information about other countries' programs (Singapore, U.S., U.K, New Zealand, Germany and Sweden).  Just a quick glance at this table makes it clear that comparison shopping and due diligence are absolutely essential.  If a migrant is going to invest that kind of money in a country, he or she needs to be relatively sure of getting a return on that investment and be happy with his choice.  This means 
that there are other criteria involved.

Attraction: Is this a country the investor wants to live in?  Is it a good place to raise a family?  What is the local infrastructure like?  Does the country have good health care?  Good schools?  Is it safe?  How much anti-immigrant sentiment is there among the local population?  All these things are subjective and based on perceptions.  A migrant investor may be quite to spend a little bit more money to get a good quality of life (and what this means greatly depends on the investor's personal circumstances).

Economy: Does the country have a stable economy with interesting opportunities? Is it easy or hard to start a business? What are the tax laws like? Will the investor be subject only to local taxes (true almost everywhere) or will he/she be taxed on worldwide income (US)?  Does having residency in one country open doors in others (US/Canada/Mexico under NAFTA or the EU)?

Family/Networks: Does the investor already have family or close friends in the destination country and are they happy and successful there?  Networks are very important - it is one of the few ways that migrants can evaluate their chances in the destination country - they listen to the experiences of trusted family members who have already done it.  Family can help with integration into the new culture and assist  the new migrant professionally by inserting him or her into existing business networks.  Also these days the migrant may be looking for good terms for his or her spouse.  Can the spouse work in 
the target country? What about adult children?

Exit Options: Not every migration story ends well. What would happen if the investor migrant decided that he/she didn't like the country for a hundred different possible reasons?   Let's say that after a few years he wanted to leave to either go home or to another country.  Can he fire the local staff, liquidate the business and take his money elsewhere or are there barriers to this?  This is important - a smart investor does not pour a million U.S. dollars into  something without assurances that he/she will 
not become a permanent "captive" of the receiving state.

The last, I think, is something to consider very carefully. Are the countries with these kinds of programs really seeking people or are they primarily interested in capital?  In an ideal world I think they want both but, at the end of the day, they just might settle for the money and let the talent go where it will.  I realize that that is a very cynical statement but when I listen to the debate over Eduardo Saverin it does seem to focus primarily on the money (lost revenue) when an equally important issue (in my humble opinion) is that this very talented individual has packed up and taken his brains, degrees and business 
experience elsewhere.

Last comment and I'll let you get to the article. The major flaw in some of these programs is in assuming that money equals entrepreneurial talent. There may be just as many idiots among the rich as among the poor and cash is not necessarily an indication that a person is business savvy.  Some of these programs require a business plan but I'd just point out that someone of means can perfectly well hire an MBA student to write one.  As for the requirement that the potential migrant show successful business experience,  how does one define "successful" and who is is responsible for evaluating past success and future potential?  Ms. Sumption makes a very good point when she says,  "A criticism of this approach is that it puts government officials in the complicated business of identifying entrepreneurial talent — something they may not be qualified to do."  Indeed.  Some countries rely on third parties to evaluate the business plans but they could be wrong too. Startups simply have a very high rate of failure.

This selective approach also does not take into account the inherent potential in all migrants. When Sergey Mikhaylovich Brin came to the U.S. at the age of six could anyone have predicted that years later he would co-found Google and have a net worth of 18 billion dollars today?   I contend that every migrant has the potential to do great things in, and be an asset to, his or her host country.  Personally, I think France could use a few more great plumbers (or at least ones that aren't booked solid for the next three months and can't fit you in when you have an emergency).  Migrant success stories (however you choose to define "success") are not unusual and yet we continue to have the arrogance to assume that we can predict the future life trajectory of someone based on where they are and what they have today before they ever land on our shores.

Potential untapped talent, I admit, cannot be easily measured but it is there in people from all places. They may simply need to be here rather than there in order to realize it.  So chase the high rollers if you will but let's have a little humility and take a chance on the others too.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Cheap Seats in Versailles



This morning it was off to see my medecin traitant (family doctor) for a consultation and some blood work.  The weather was nice enough to make it a fine walk through a part of Versailles most visitors never see.  These are the "cheap seats" - a part of town that is strictly middle to lower-middle class.  To get there, put yourself on the avenue de Paris facing the Chateau de Versailles, turn around 180 degrees and go in the opposite direction toward Viroflay.  Lots to see if you take your time and try to be present and open to discovery.



This is one of the largest convents I've ever seen: The Soeurs Servantes du Sacré Coeur de Jésus.  There is a magnificent chapel in the middle and a lovely courtyard off to the side filled with flowers and a statue of the Virgin Mary.  I thought about going in to see more but that seemed, well, inappropriate.  I checked the St. Symphorien parish website and they do have Mass at 9:30 every morning which they say is "ouverte à tous" (open to everyone).  There is a picture of the inside of the chapel on one of the above websites.  Heartbreakingly beautiful and I think worth a visit.




One of the several gated communities on the avenue de Paris.  These are definitely not "cheap seats."  From what I could see, the houses inside are lovely but since casual visitors are not allowed I couldn't get in to get a closer look.  This one was established around the turn of the 20th century. 



Here is an example of some of the modern architecture you can find in this area. These are typical apartment buildings and you'll notice that they are fairly modest and only about three stories high. It's very rare in Versailles to see buildings taller than 5 or 6 stories. I like this little side street a lot because it reminds me of our neighborhood, Shirokanedai, in Tokyo, Japan.




This is an HLM (habitation à loyer modéré) - low-income housing.  It is not fancy but it's clean, free of graffiti and well-maintained.  There are several public parks in the area with playgrounds for children.  The parks are clean as a whistle (zero litter) and are filled with flowers and perfect grass. 



The local mall called l'Esplanade Grand Siecle.  The ground floor has the shops and government offices - the upper stories are apartments.  We do our family food shopping here and this is where our family doctor has his office.  This is the shop, the Fleurs d Lys that is the main supplier for the Flophouse garden.  It's not a big store but what it lacks in variety it more than makes up for in the quality of the plants and the very warm welcome of the ladies who own and run it. 


Naturally, I could not leave the mall without paying them a visit.  Once my business was done at the doctor's office I stopped by for my "fix" - some lovely flowers for the garden and a slug-bait for those pesky escargots (no, folks, eating them is absolutely out of the question).


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Feeling Better about the FBAR

There is an important deadline coming up.  June 30th is the due date for those ugly FBARs (Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts) to be turned into the U.S. Treasury Department in Detroit, Michigan.

The FBAR (aka Form TD F 90-22.1) must be filed by all U.S. persons (United States citizens, United States residents; entities, including but not limited to, corporations, partnerships, or limited liability companies created or organized in the United States or under the laws of the United States; and trusts or estates formed under the laws of the United States) where:
  1. The United States person had a financial interest in or signature authority over at least one financial account located outside of the United States; and
  2. The aggregate value of all foreign financial accounts exceeded $10,000 at any time during the calendar year to be reported.
Allow me to translate for us mere mortals who are not Certified Public Accountants or International Tax Lawyers.  If you are a U.S. citizen or Green Card holder living abroad or you are a resident of the United States and you have foreign bank accounts and the combined value of those accounts exceeds 10,000 USD (roughly 7,890 Euros, 6,358 British Pounds, 789,000 Japanese Yen) you must file this form by the end of the month.  "Foreign" in this context means any accounts located outside of the United States.

I think it's fair to say that Americans and Green Card holders abroad and immigrants in the U.S. hate this form like the devil hates holy water.  Up until recently practically no one knew of this filing requirement until the IRS started cracking down.  The U.S. doesn't have any kind of exit procedure for those of us who leave the country and immigrants aren't clued in when they pick up their shiny new Green Cards or other residency permits.  In the 20 years I've been abroad I've never (in my rare visits to the U.S. embassies in places like Paris and Tokyo) been told about this. When someone does get clued in and goes to the IRS website to learn more, the language is just not clear.  Now I'm a native speaker of English but I still had to talk to two tax professionals in the U.S. before I was able to wrap my head around it.  It must be 10 times worse for someone who does not speak English or has English as a second or third language.  The filing date of June 30th is not the same date for filing those tax returns, the form is filed with a different U.S. government entity (Treasury Department as opposed to the IRS) and it basically duplicates the information that is filed with a U.S. tax return, Form 8938 (Statement of Specified Foreign Financial Assets.)  The fines for not filing (or screwing up the form) are a monstrous 10,000 USD.  You know, next time we hear U.S. homelanders talk about how bureaucratic and inefficient European countries are, I think we can safely tell them to stuff it.  As one person at Isaac Brock put it, this is "Form Nation" at its worst.

Enough griping.  It is what it is.  That governments do dumb things is hardly new and there is no reason that the U.S. government should be any more efficient or logical or less bureaucratic than any other government on this planet. There is nothing exceptional about the U.S. in this respect.

The big question is (given the IRS crackdown and the upcoming FATCA laws):  will U.S. persons comply?  I suspect that more will do so this year but certainly not everyone.  Some folks are refusing, others are waiting for the outcome of this year's election (and praying that Obama gets tossed) and others are just confused about what they have to do to get compliant if they just learned about the filing requirement (Stephen Mopsick refers to this as the Compliance Dilemma).

I don't have any advice to offer on this.  Even the "cross-border professionals" are giving conflicting strategies (file five years, file this year and comply going forward and so on).  All I can do is tell you that I did get compliant (once I finally figured out that I had to file) and give you my reasons for doing so:

Stress Relief:  There are few things more stressful to a law-abiding person than being told that, because you didn't file this form, you are in BIG trouble because you broke a law you didn't know about and you might be facing fines of between 10,000 and 50,000 USD because you didn't report your "foreign" (local to you) checking accounts, saving accounts, children's college funds and so on.   Lot of folks stopped sleeping well at night once they got clued in.  This is a really scary situation and the fact that you have to think hard about how to tackle it and the complete lack of understanding and sympathy coming from friends, family, politicians in the U.S. just adds to the stress. I know folks who are avoiding the U.S. Embassies as though they were plague-infested territory and some have even locked their U.S. passports in a drawer and have given up all thought of vacationing in the U.S. and seeing the family for the foreseeable future.  I came to the conclusion that I didn't want to live like that and so, on the advice of a U.S. CPA with some experience in these matters, I just filed the damn things. Did I do right?  No idea but I made a good faith effort and I sleep a lot better these days.

Buying Time:  If you are stuck on the fence and not sure what to do, doing the best you can and filing something gives you all of next year to figure out your strategy going forward.  However, any decision based on incomplete information under stress is probably not going to be in your best interests so this may be a good time to find a reputable International Tax attorney and start the process of figuring out what you need to do next.  The situation is a lot more complicated than just FBAR compliance - there are issues of asset management, inheritance and taxes to be addressed.  Reading the articles and comments scattered around the Internet, you'll find that people's experience with "cross-border professionals" really varies.  Something, I think, that would be very helpful, is some kind of list of tax professionals that folks in this situation have consulted and would recommend to others.  Buying time also gives those U.S. citizens who have wavered for years about getting citizenship in their host countries, an opportunity to apply and hopefully have it granted  - something that greatly expands one's options going forward.

Expanding Options:   Speaking of options, having that second passport and being compliant with the U.S. tax and reporting requirements makes the situation much more favorable if you are thinking about renouncing or relinquishing U.S. citizenship.  In principle, you must have 5 years of compliance behind you before you renounce.  So maybe it's time to get it done already so you can start singing, "Should I Stay or Should I go?" If you are compliant (and you are under the threshold for being a covered expatriate) then you can say "Sayonara" to the U.S. any time you like. Perhaps you will decide not to renounce but wouldn't it be nice to be in a position to be able to do it with a minimum amount of hassle?  That was my reasoning anyway.

Sheer Perversity:  An awful lot of Americans and Green Card holders abroad do not make enough money in their host countries to pay U.S. taxes even if they do have to file.  Not a dime.  If even half of just the U.S. citizens abroad do decide to file FBARs, that's around 3 million pieces of paper shooting straight toward Detroit where they will have to be received, processed and, I'm assuming, keyed into an information system.  The time and personnel that this requires is paid for almost entirely by homelanders (people living in the U.S.)  It's their tax dollars at work - not the tax dollars of a minimum wage English teacher living in Grenoble, France.  Something about the vision of some poor data entry clerk in the U.S. keying in information about the younger Frenchling's savings account (she was a good girl this year and she has almost 700 Euros saved up) just makes me smile.  It is such a waste of resources and, while one bank account isn't much, multiply this by 6 million people or more and all their savings, checking and other accounts that they need in order to pay rent, buy food and get paid in their host countries and that adds up to a lot of man hours.

So there is a perverse reasoning here that says if homeland Americans really want us to comply and prove that we aren't using our bank accounts for nefarious purposes, then they deserve to get the information that they seem to want good and hard.  Let's call this "Feeding the Beast" - something that was done to good effect by this gentleman.

That is a mildly funny take on it but there is one aspect of this that isn't funny at all.  There are people in the U.S. who have parked their money abroad to evade taxes - these are the true "tax evaders.".  There are also terrorists, drug dealers and the like who have foreign bank accounts that are being used to launder money and who, through their activities, just generally make life more miserable for all of us wherever we live.  When U.S. law requires the Treasury department and the IRS to process and wade through (assuming everyone get compliant) tens of millions of forms a year, the vast majority of which are just basic local bank accounts, then it seems to me that their job just got a whole lot harder and that doesn't make the U.S. (or the rest of the world) a safer place.  And that is something that doesn't make me feel better about the FBAR.

I just read on the IRS website that there is now an electronic filing system for the FBAR.  More info here.  I took one look at the site and saw the words "BSA E-Filing system - Financial Crimes Enforcement Network".   Oh my.  I don't think I want anything to do with that and I will just file a paper copy.... 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Chemo Cocktail

Last week was pretty rough.  I went in for my for my first chemo session in early June and have been home recovering ever since.  Yesterday was the first day in the last two weeks that I have felt quasi-normal and was able to get out and do a bit of jardinage (gardening) in the Flophouse garden.  I had all of the effets secondaires (side effects):  nausea, fatigue and other fun stuff.  For the first few days I lived on biscuits and lemonade (the French version is nice and fizzy but has much less sugar then the equivalent in the U.S.)  The first thing I did after the nausea started subsiding was to stuff myself with fresh fruits and vegetables.  I have never been so happy to see slightly crunchy steamed broccoli on my plate...

That said, it could have much worse.  I seem to be in the mid-range as far as side effects go.  The anti-nausea medication I was given worked pretty well.  I was warned ahead of time that the nausea would last from 2-5 days and I started being able to eat normally about day 3.  All to the good.  Now I just have to do it 5 more times every 3 weeks or so. :-)

About the chemo.  First session was on June 7th.  I arrived at the hospital en temps et en heure (in good time and in good order) and waited for about an hour in the waiting room.  I had a lot of company - the room was filled with folks in various stages of treatment, young and old.  I had a very nice conversation with an older woman who noticed my Ipad and asked to have a look because her son wanted to get her one. I felt a lot of solidarity in that room and the French (who are not normally very chatty with strangers) were striking up conversations right and left.

I was finally called in and since it was my first time I saw a new doctor who examined me and we had a little "get to know each other" chat.  This did not go very well and to understand why I need to give you some information about something I don't talk about much in general conversation and have never discussed on my blog.  My cancer is not the first life-threatening illness I have experienced - it is the second.   I am a recovering alcoholic.  I am a very lucky woman because I recognized I had a problem and got myself into treatment.  These days I do not drink and I believe that my health and sanity are contingent on my never ever picking up another glass of wine again.  That may sound scary to those of you who think that it's not possible to live in the country of fine wine and delicious cheese and not drink alcohol but, hey, there is a lot more to France than that and, yes, it is entirely possible to have a very good time here without having to sit in bistros and drink kir.  If you have any doubts or if you are someone who is afraid to come here because you have a problem with alcohol and you think France is too dangerous for your sobriety, send me an email and I'll put you in touch with the people who helped (and are still helping) me.

Why am I talking about this?  Because I think there is an important lesson in here about cultural bias and medical care.  Alcoholism is a recognized problem in France but there are some important cultural barriers to getting treatment through the system. Let's start with the language. In English there are words and terms that have come into common usage that simply do not translate well into French.  Terms like "recovering alcoholic" and "high-functioning alcoholic."  My experience has been that if you tell a French person that you are an alcoholic who doesn't drink, he/she has a moment of cognitive dissonance.  How can you be an alcoholic and not drink?  The mere fact that you are able to be abstinent is for many a clear sign that you are not.  Nothing could be farther from the truth but I've had a very hard time getting this message across to the extent that very well-meaning people who sincerely care about me still try to push drinks on me because, in their minds, I have proven that I don't have a problem with alcohol because I have been sober for so long.

There is also a stigma associated with the word "alcoholic."  It tends to bring up visions of bums sleeping in the metro with a bottle of cheap red dangling from their fingertips.  When you, female middle-class professional with a high income, nice clothes and a Gucci purse talk about this, frequently you are simply not taken very seriously.  And finally the doctors I have seen here about this seem to be more oriented toward to getting you back to a place where you can drink again.  Not one French doctor I've seen over the years ever seriously considered abstinence from alcohol as a realistic or desirable possibility.  I was given tranquilizers and told that if I could abstain for 30 days I would be "cured" and able to drink again.  I've talked to people here about my experience with French healthcare on this topic and this seems to be pretty standard.  In fact many of these folks (French and foreign) said that the outcome of this treatment for them was that they ended up hooked on prescription drugs (tranquilizers and other anti-anxiety medication) AND alcohol.  I ended up seeking an alternative to standard medical care and so did they.

In all the consultations I've had with the hospital I have talked openly about my situation and have made it very clear that I do not want the doctors to prescribe any mood-altering substances. Not only is this deadly for my health, it is also about my wishes which I want respected.  My morale is good, I don't need them and there is no medical reason to give them to me - tranks do not cure cancer.

However, tranquilizers are a standard component in the Chemo Cocktail here in France and you have to ask to have it removed.  I not only did this but I asked that it be put on my chart.  For the most part the doctors have been very supportive but it was just my bad luck that for my first chemo session I stumbled upon one who looked me up and down and simply didn't believe me. When I looked at the list of medications in my personalized chemo cocktail and had questions about one line that looked suspicious to me, she simply told me it was part of the treatment and I should not be concerned about it.   It was the nurse who caught it.  She had started preparing the medication, looked at my chart, looked again, and then came over to talk with me.  Madame, you are an alcoholic?  Yes.  You don't want the tranquilizers?  That's right.  Did you tell the doctor?  Yes.  Well, they are still in the prescription.  Do you confirm that you don't want them?  Yes, I absolutely do NOT want them.  She then pursed her lips, marched out the door and, I presume, went to have a chat with the doctor.  When she came back she dumped everything she had prepared up to that point and started over.  When she started the drip she assured me that the tranquilizers had been removed.  Everything went just fine from that point on and I thanked the nurse profusely many times during the session and after just before I left to go home.

This experience was a conjunction of two things which have nothing really to do with medical care and everything to do with cultural attitudes.  The first was a doctor who, I believe, truly thought that she was giving good care.  The tranquilizers are standard because they want patients to be comfortable and not ridden with anxiety.  In the balance between my wishes and what she thought was in my best interests, she made a determination that it was better to give them to me even if I didn't want them.  The second (which was also about the doctor) was an inability to square this well-dressed, nearing middle-age, professional lady with something like alcoholism.  She simply didn't believe me and the clincher was, I think, when she asked me if I had ever had liver failure and I said, "No."  All's well that ends well and fortunately there was another medical professional who took the time to double-check my chart and went to bat for me.

A few months ago I came across an EU report on alcohol abuse in Europe.  I can't find the report in my archives so I am unable to quote from it directly but here were the messages I remember.  Alcohol abuse is a serious problem in Europe which is not confined to the East.  Contrary to the myth that the French don't abuse alcohol because they have learned to drink normally from the cradle, alcoholism is a serious health issue here.  In addition to problems like liver failure and certain forms of cancer it is an important factor in the high number of automobile accidents.  The report called for better treatment for alcoholism through the national healthcare systems and it said that if the French (and other Europeans) would just drink a little bit less, it would go a long way toward filling the "trou" (hole) in the budget of the sécurité sociale.  The conclusions of the report were met with skepticism and outright hostility by the alcohol industry here (that includes the winemakers and their associations) and was promptly buried deep.  About the only thing you see these days that shows some concern about this on the part of the state is a message on wine and other liquor bottles that mildly advises us all to "Drink moderately."  A step in the right direction that nonetheless does not take into account those who can't and we are legion.  Even in France.

When I first went into treatment, I was a bit annoyed by my fellow sufferers who insisted that they were "grateful" to be here and in recovery.  What, in heaven's name, I asked myself, is there to be grateful for?  Ah, how quickly things change.  These days, I am on-my-knees grateful.  I could not imagine the nightmare of going through cancer treatment as an active alcoholic.  Through the program I joined, I was given tools that saved my life.  All these tools are turning out to be very useful as I fight my second life-threatening condition.

So today when folks ask me how I'm coping with cancer, I have the answer:

 One day at a time, folks, one day at a time.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Eating My Words

Re-reading my last post it's clear that I had completely lost my Beginner's Mind.  Happily, I have readers willing to call me on it.  Over the last few days I read and finished Moneyball and I have to say it is a fine read.  Yes, it is much more than a story about baseball or sports - it's about value for money and why one can spend (and waste) a fortune and still not get the results one wants.  I recommend it though I still think Liar's Poker is the better book with Boomerang a close second.

Here is a PBS interview (courtesy of Just Me) where Michael Lewis talks about what he was trying to achieve in his Princeton speech.  I think this line is my favorite, "When you're asked to give one of these speeches, your first goal is really not to embarrass yourself."

As someone who has given a few speeches in her day, I know exactly what he's talking about. :-)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Michael Lewis on Luck

One of the few Michael Lewis books that I have not read and have no intention of reading is Moneyball.  My dislike for sports (and that goes for all of them including football/soccer) is stronger than the real pleasure I get reading Lewis' work.  This is something I try not to say too loudly, especially during the World Cup, since I risk offending people I care about (and the people who sign my paychecks).   Umberto Eco was dead right about football/soccer and I, being a democratic kind of gal, extend my contempt to all the others.

Happily Lewis has other books without a sports theme but here's the common thread in all of them - the crazy world of money.   How crazy?  Well, at the start of his career when he was a wet-behind-the ears college graduate Michael Lewis went from being an unemployable Art History major to working in the 1980's for one of New York's biggest investment firms as a bond salesman raking in some serious money.  The story of how this happened is told in one of his best books, Liar's Poker.  Was it his fine education (Princeton) or his just-lurking-under-the-surface talent for investment that got him this job?  Nope. It was sheer dumb luck.  He just happened to be seated next to someone at a dinner who liked him and put in a good word for him with the firm.  The absurdity of that and what he discovered as an employee at Salomon Brothers makes for a fine tale.  I also highly recommend The Big Short (about the 2007 financial crisis) and Boomerang (about the financial crisis in Greece, Iceland and Ireland).

Recently Lewis went back to his alma mater to give the commencement speech.  Open Culture just posted it.  Nicely done.  What he tries to convey to these new graduates is the importance of luck in any successful endeavor and he gives them a mild warning about having a sense of entitlement. I couldn't help but think, however, as I watched it and as the camera panned over the faces of the graduating class that I was not looking at the "lucky."  Student loans, a tight job market and a country that is looking down (I learned a new word yesterday) Taxmageddon make for pretty unfavorable conditions for success, however you choose to define it.  None of this is their fault, mind you.  It's just pure dumb blind bad luck...



Monday, June 11, 2012

French Legislative Elections - the Overseas Voting Districts

Yesterday was the first round of the 2012 legislative elections here in France.  Turnout was low but the Socialist Party seems to have done well.  For a quick analysis see Arun's take on the first results here. I was personally quite pleased by this headline in Le Monde this morning, Claude Guéant est en difficulté à Boulogne-Billancourt (Claude Guéant is in trouble in Boulogne-Billancourt).

But the results I really wanted to see were the votes cast by the Overseas French.  2012 is the first year that French expatriates can vote for legislative representatives in addition to the Senators that they've had for years.  For this, the world outside France was split into 11 districts (geographical regions) and each French expatriate population in that district voted for the candidates of their choice the previous weekend.  You read that correctly - the overseas French voted one week ahead of the regular legislative elections in France.  In addition to that there were different dates for the vote in America versus "the rest of the world".  I had no idea and apparently some of the French abroad didn't either.  Turnout was abysmally low.  There were other problems as well.  The e-voting system was a disaster.  Some folks didn't get their access credentials in time (or they didn't work) and others struggled with software incompatibilities and just gave up in frustration.

And finally according to Le Monde not all the French abroad were convinced of the interest or usefulness of voting in a country that they don't live in.  Noémie G in Montreal said, "J'ai décidé de ne pas voter, car je trouve étrange de participer à une élection pour un pays où je ne vis pas. Il me semble beaucoup plus normal qu'un étranger puisse voter pour des élections locales les concernant." ("I decided to not vote because I find it strange to participate in an election in a country I don't live in.  It seems to me that it would be much more appropriate if foreigners could vote in the local elections that concern them.")

I see her point and this is one I struggle with every time I fill out my absentee ballot for the U.S.  My answer (which is based on hard experience) is simply this:  you may be living in a foreign country but you are still French and France has an interest in you which ranges from genuine concern for your welfare to an interest in the contents of your bank accounts.  The American system of citizenship-based taxation has its fans in France.  Various political parties in the Hexagone seem intrigued by the idea that there is untapped expatriate wealth just sitting out there to be farmed for the benefit of the home country.  Perhaps it will never come to that but I'd say it's better to take all the representation you can get now lest your home country politicians decide one day that you are the perfect pigeons to be plucked and your host country decides to help them out.

I'll end this post with the first-round results as reported by Le Monde for the 11 new overseas districts.  The second round for the French abroad will take place Saturday June 16 2012 for the American continent and Sunday June 17 for the rest of the world.

US/Canada (District 1) -  Corinne Narassiguin of the Socialist party with nearly 40% of the vote. UMP candidate, Frédéric Lefebvre, is a distant second.

Central and South America/Caribbean (District 2) - Sergio Coronado (EELV-PS) with almost 36%.  Pascal Drouhaud of the UMP is in second place.

UK/Ireland/Scandinavia (District 3) -  Axelle Lemaire, Socialist Party, with 30%. Emmanuelle Savarit, UMP, is in second place.

Benelux (District 4) - Philip Cordery, Socialist Party, ahead of Marie-Anne Montchamp, UMP.

Iberian Peninsula/Monaco (District 5) - Close vote between Laurence Sailliet (UMP) and Arnaud Leroy (Socialist Party).

Switzerland (District 6) - Another close vote between Claudine Schmid (UMP) and Nicole Castioni (Socialist Party)

Eastern and Central Europe/Balkans (District 7) -  Pierre-Yves Le Borgn' of the Socialist Party way ahead of the UMP candidate.

Italy/Turkey/Cyprus/Israel (District 8) - Daphna Poznanski (Socialist Party) at 30% and safely ahead of Valérie Hoffenberg (UMP).

North and West Africa (District 9) - Pouria Amirshahi of the Socialist Party.

Africa and the Middle East (District 10) -  Alain Marsaud (UMP) with 32% and Jean-Daniel Chaoui (Socialist Party) close behind at 29%.

Asia/Oceania (District 11) -  Thierry Mariani (UMP) ahead of Marc Villard (Socialist Party).

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Flophouse Garden - Cats' Paradise

To a human the Flophouse garden is a nice place to sit out on the patio and admire the roses.  For a cat, however, it is something else - a jungle with places to hide and branches and stone walls on which to lazily perch and disdainfully survey the domain.

We have two cats:  Tatou and Minouche.  The first is dumber than a post and the second is probably the ugliest feline I've ever met. Yes, we do love them.  Enough to haul them all the way to Tokyo and back.

Here they are in all their (ahem) "glory":

Tatou hiding under the hedge

The "jungle" that I leave uncut so that they can romp.

Minouche "guarding" the kitchen door
"Their" scratching post
My wild strawberries (about the only thing the little !@#$ won't nibble on)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Two Tales of U.S. Citizenship

One continent.  Two borders.  Three countries.  Many questions about citizenship.

Here are two citizenship stories that I've been following separately that I think are worth placing side by side and comparing.  Both concern U.S. citizenship but one is about people who do not want to be claimed as U.S. citizens while the other is a fight for recognition as U.S. citizens.

The Old Expatriates:  Once upon a time the U.S. did not allow its citizens to naturalize in other countries and retain their U.S. citizenship.  Even today you can go to this U.S. State Department website which lists those acts which can potentially cause a U.S. citizen to lose his or her citizenship.  Two of them are:
  1. obtaining naturalization in a foreign state (Sec. 349 (a) (1) INA);
  2. taking an oath, affirmation or other formal declaration to a foreign state or its political subdivisions (Sec. 349 (a) (2) INA);
Prior to 1986 performing one of the above actions (among others) meant automatic loss of one's U.S. citizenship.  Two Supreme Court cases, a law passed by the U.S. Congress and a revision of State Department policy concerning dual citizenship in 1990 changed all that.  Today these acts will only cause someone to lose U.S. citizenship if they are performed "voluntarily and with the intention to relinquish U.S. citizenship."  This is basically recognition by the U.S. of the right to dual citizenship for birthright citizens.  (Please note that this also means there are two methods of severing one's ties to the U.S.:  relinquishment versus renunciation.)

So any U.S. citizen who naturalized in another country prior to 1986 (or 1990 if you prefer) was no longer a U.S. citizen the moment he or she swore an oath to the Queen or any other foreign power. A fair number of people did just that.  In particular all those Americans who headed north in the 1960's and 70's.  At that time none of these expatriates were required to inform the U.S. of their actions though I have seen reports on Isaac Brock that some did do so at the time.  It was not until 1995 that the U.S. started requiring people relinquishing their U.S citizenship to inform the State department of that fact.

For years these people have been living quietly and happily in Canada:  getting married, raising families, and working.  Today many are retired.  In their minds, they are 100% Canadian though many still have family and friends to the south.  

Then in 2010 the U.S. Congress passed a law called FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act) which requires foreign financial institutions to report on financial accounts held by U.S persons (U.S. citizens and Green Card Holders).  Under FATCA the burden is on the foreign bank or other entity to identify their account holders who are U.S. persons in order to turn that information over to the U.S. IRS.  The easiest way to do this, of course, is through place of birth.  This in turn places a burden on those Canadian citizens born in the U.S. to prove that they are no longer U.S. citizens.  They are not only having to do this to satisfy their banks but also to satisfy U.S. border guards who are stopping these ex-Americans at the border and telling them to get U.S. passports and start filing taxes.  One guard is even reported to have said in response to a Canadian arguing that she had given up her U.S. citizenship years ago, "You're an American until we say otherwise."

To say that these Canadians are pretty upset by this nonsense would be a grave understatement.    The solution to this nightmare is to have something called a Certificate of Loss of Nationality (CLN).  Some folks already have one buried in their archives while others are having to apply for one.  Reports are that this can take up to a year.

Suspect Citizens:  Moving down to the U.S. southern border a completely different situation has been evolving as the Obama administration has implemented harsh deportation policies for undocumented migrants in the U.S. and has stepped up border checks to keep potential migrants out.
Again, citizenship policy is fundamental here.  The U.S. grants citizenship by both jus sanguinis (by blood) and by jus soli (by place of birth).  In fact the U.S. has one of the most generous jus soli laws around.  Anyone born in the U.S. is a U.S. citizen.  Period.   

In the zeal to cleanse the U.S. of the undocumented it appears that a number of U.S. citizens are seeing the sharp side of the boot. The U.S. does not have anything resembling a national identity card and most Americans don't carry documentation that clearly shows their citizenship status.  In fact the only documents I know of that are definitive proof of U.S. citizenship are a Certificate of Nationality or Certificate of Citizenship.  Birth certificates and U.S. passports also work in most cases but few people carry birth certificates in their pockets and many Americans don't have passports.

So when someone is picked up in the U.S. and is suspected of being undocumented and cannot prove on the spot that he or she is a U.S. citizen, what happens?  That person can be detained or even deported.   From the stories in the U.S. media it appears that very few people with last names like "Smith" or "Johnson" or "O'Reilly" ever find themselves in this situation.  It's more a problem for folks like Antonio Montejano (place of birth Los Angeles, California, USA) who was arrested twice and even deported to Mexico once before the ALCU intervened and got the situation straightened out.

Jacqueline Stevens, author of States Without Nations: Citizenship for Mortals estimates that about 4,000 U.S. citizens were wrongfully deported in 2010 alone.  In support of this assertion, and for specific cases that she has been tracking, see this thread on her website States Without Nations.  There are even reports that U.S. border officials have intimidated some returning U.S. citizens at the border into renouncing their U.S. citizenship.  Interestingly enough these "on the spot" renunciations do not seem to require proof of U.S. tax compliance nor a determination from the U.S. IRS that the renunciant is not giving up U.S. citizenship for the purpose of evading taxes. :-)

Not a very pretty picture is it?  To the north,  people being forced into proving that they are no longer U.S. citizens and to the south, people being bullied into proving that they are and sometimes being stripped of that citizenship (and the rights that go along with it) on the whim of a border guard or an immigration official.

If I were a very cynical woman I might attribute all of this to such things as racism (a desire to remove "undesirable" citizens) or greed (a blatant attempt to appropriate the assets of retired ex-Americans abroad).  But I would not want to make the error of inferring intent from design.  Follow the links, do your own research and make up your own mind.  

As for myself I plan on thinking on it a bit more as it is very early on Saturday morning here in Versailles and I have not yet had my morning coffee. 

Bon weekend, everyone!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Where You Sit in the French Political Spectrum

This is too cool.  Flophouse readers, I'd like to point your attention to Arun's latest post about Politest.  This is a very short test devised by French political science students to determine where a person sits on the French political spectrum and what parties that person might be affiliated with.

Arun translated the test questions into English.  I invite all Flophouse readers from countries outside of France to take the test and see how your political opinions map to the French political scene.  

Then, if you are so inclined, drop Arun a note in the comments section giving your country/political affiliation/party where you are and what your results were for France.

Full disclosure.  I took the test a few moments ago and I may be a conservative in the U.S. but I sit firmly in the center here in France.  Go figure.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Phil Hodgen on Why People Expatriate

Phil Hodgen's International Tax Blog is one of my most important sources of information about the American tax system and how it impacts Americans and Green Card holders abroad.  Solid info about a complex issue delivered with style (Mr. Hodgen has quite a way with words).

His latest post about why Americans are giving up U.S. citizenship, written while on a long-haul flight from Dubai to LA, is a must read.  It's not short but it is sweet and to the point and I think he does an outstanding job of covering all the bases.

I concur with everything he says with one exception.  He contends that one of the benefits of being a U.S. citizen is that,  "In theory, if you get in the right kind of trouble the big black helicopters will come to your rescue."

Sorry, Mr. Hodgen, but for those of us (U.S. Persons) living in places like Europe we long ago realized that this is pure fantasy.  In a developed country with nukes (like France, for example) there just won't be be any black helicopters swooping down to rescue anyone. Ever.  In fact, the U.S. Embassy isn't much help in these places even for minor stuff like assistance for American victims of domestic violence abroad or even those facing a trip to court and a prison sentence.  Best they can do is point Americans to volunteer organizations and give them a list of local English-speaking lawyers.  I have some friends here who have ended up in these situations and they pretty much had to DIY and throw themselves on the mercy of the local system.  This is not, I must point out, the fault of the Embassy personnel who are overall fine folks.  It's about the limitations of power - the Marines will not be walking into Paris or Berlin anytime soon regardless of how Americans in these places are treated (pretty well right now but that could change).

The rest of the post is dead right and I have to reluctantly agree with his assessment that it's not going to improve anytime soon.  "I expect the future to be more of the same. Expect the same exit tax rules, but more of them, and worse. Expect more expatriations. The floggings will continue until morale improves."

The Adventure Thus Far

Been sticking very close to the Flophouse recently.  In fact, I was pretty much confined to the couch after having spent the better part of Tuesday morning at the hospital being fitted for my very own "chambre implantable" model Celsite ST215 by B. Braun.  This is a handy little device that was inserted in my upper chest on the left side by the pros at the hospital René Huguenin in St. Cloud. Its purpose is to be the conduit through which I will be receiving doses of chemotherapy - first session this afternoon.

The story of how I went from looking for a job (and I'd like to think being very close to getting one) to being a regular at one of Paris' best cancer treatment centers is probably old hat to anyone who has traveled down this road but I'll give you a short recap anyway.

It all started with my family doctor in Versailles.  I was, as they say, healthy as a horse (never sick, walked at least an hour a day, lifted weights, followed a low-fat diet devoid of baguettes) but I had nevertheless felt something that I thought was bothersome enough to bring to his attention.  The consultation was short and we both agreed that it was probably nothing.  But just to be sure he sent me over to a radiology clinic where "nothing" turned out to be "something" that was interesting enough to get me an appointment tout de suite at the Institut Curie/Centre Rene Huguenin in St. Cloud, a community on the outskirts of Paris.

There was never a doubt that it was cancer - the question was what kind, how far it had progressed and what would be the most appropriate treatment.  The discovery process took a few short weeks where I underwent a series of tests that included ultrasounds, blood tests, biopsies and a full PET scan.   In relatively short order the verdict was in.  The good news was that the cancer had not yet spread elsewhere.  The bad news was that what was there was not to be trifled with:  stage II breast cancer which had spread into the lymph nodes on one side.

Once my family doctor (my "medecin traitant") had the diagnosis in hand he prepared my application for what is called ALD (Affection de Longue Durée).  Let me explain.  When I was unemployed I was still covered under the national healthcare program and this coverage continues as long as I am jobless and even for some months after my unemployment runs out.  This coverage is not however 100% - there are co-pays for which we were fortunate enough to have private insurance through my spouse's employer.

When a serious illness strikes, an application has to be submitted for full coverage (the famous ALD) to the local Security Office where it is examined by a government doctor who then grants (or not) access.  It can take some time for the paperwork to be processed and, on the advice of my doctor, I submitted my application in person. At the very same time I went on what is known as "arrêt de travail pour maladie" which means that my unemployment is suspended for the time I am ill, Social Security will pay a small daily stipend in the meantime, and my unemployment will be waiting for me once I'm well enough to start looking for work again.

I went in for surgery in early May.  It went very well.  The hospital was not fancy but it was bright and cheery.  I had a room that was set up for two but a second person never arrived so essentially I had a private room.  The food was pretty good too -  tasty bread and an outstanding "potage" (soup).  There was even a "goûter" (snack) every day at around 4:00:  tea and madeleines.  The staff was just amazing.  I think I will remember for the rest of my days the cheerful guy in the bright surgical cap who wheeled me into the operating room and the surgeon who simply stood over me and patted my arm gently as I went under.

I was in for under a week and was then sent home under something called HAD (l'hospitalisation à domicile) which mean that a nurse came every single day to my home to check my vitals and my scars. While I was healing I received the letter from Social Security office granting me the ALD 100% coverage which means that from now on there will be no bills.  All I have to do is present my national healthcare card (Carte Vitale) and it's all taken care of.

For years my worst nightmare was becoming seriously ill in my host country, France.  Not because I lacked faith in the healthcare system but because I was thousands of miles away from what was once most familiar to me.  To my surprise and relief, this experience is not turning out to be a "cauchemar."  The care I am getting is not only very competent but compassionate as well and the center's procedures are carried out with amazing efficiency.  I am also blessed with a good network here of friends, family and former colleagues. And thank goodness I speak the language so I can speak directly to my caregivers without having to draft my children or spouse into translating.

So let's just call this an adventure. One that I share with a surprising number of old and new friends.  Just one more way of connecting with others and making one's world ever wider.  Granted there are probably easier and more agreeable ways to do this but, hey, you take what you can get.  Carpe diem, my friends, which means never ever miss a chance to "seize the day."