A new home

Posted in Home improvement, La France, Nice at 17:25

Art Deco lines
This will come as a bit of a surprise to readers, since I never mentioned it before, wanting to keep quiet until I knew for certain. This morning I had an interview for obtaining French citizenship at the préfecture in Nice. It went very well, and the préfet’s representative told me that there was no valid reason to refuse my application. In legal French, and in the context of the naturalisation for which I’d applied, this means it will be accepted by the Ministry in charge of naturalisations. That will take about a year, as the representative also told me.

Of his own accord, he also pointed out that the process had gone surprisingly fast. Indeed, I had applied around the start of November last year, and received notice of my interview at the end of January. The préfet’s representative explained that it was because the police investigation had gone quickly. “I can’t remember the last time I got a police report so soon after requesting one,” he laughed, then he asked me, “did the police ever contact you or visit you?” I answered “no, but I’m often in contact with them, ha! I have a dangerous neighbor, so I call them a lot.” Continuing with the joke, the man pulled out the police report and chuckled, “well, they say they have no idea who you are!” In French legalese, “ne pas être connu”, “to not be known” by the police means that you have no criminal record. The man interviewing me even added another layer of word play when he saw that I’d understood the joke, saying “et bien, on peut rajouter que le français ne vous est pas étranger !” In English, “well, I can add that French isn’t foreign to you!” It was nice to have met with someone easy-going.

That said, I’ve almost always dealt with easy-going public employees in France. At the tax office, train station (SNCF), post office (which is where I’ve met the grumpy ones), prefecture, city police, national police — they’ve nearly all been helpful and even funny. I’ll never forget the towering gendarme (national policeman) in my living room who, after he’d recognized my violent neighbor was indeed a danger to others, and after I’d showed photos of excrement she kept putting on my patio, said in his booming, authoritative voice, totally deadpan, “En effet. Mademoiselle, on peut dire que vous êtes dans la merde.” “Indeed. Miss, it could be said that you’re in a shitty situation.”

In addition to having a new home country, my home apartment became much more welcoming this weekend, with the addition of a sofa and two matching chairs, shown in this entry’s photo. On Saturday, I went to my favorite brocante, secondhand shop, to look for a small end table. In the window was a gorgeous forest green leather Chesterfield, but well out of my budget range. Further inside, I noticed a sofa and chairs set with oddly-styled arms; curved wood over an upholstered arm, but the wood “floated” over the upholstery. I love clean, curved lines on furniture. Furthermore, it looked like the pieces were narrow enough to fit through my living room door frame, which is just 75cm/30 inches wide. I checked their price, expecting something in the 300-500 euro range. 50 euros — fifty! “Oh dear, something must be terribly wrong with them,” I thought, and so I looked around the rest of the store. Finding no end tables I liked, I returned to the living room set. “At that price, I might as well try them out and check them over,” I told myself. They were in perfect condition, and incredibly comfortable, with firm springs. They were in such good condition, in fact, that I had no idea what period they could possibly be from, since they obviously weren’t contemporary, but not antique, either. I measured their depth: 70 centimeters (27″). Perfect. I bought them. Delivery cost as much as they did, and in another stroke of luck, I’d bought them ten minutes before the delivery van arrived for its afternoon round — they kindly delivered them the very same day!

Once home, I photographed the sofa and the two chairs, and submitted a question to one of my favorite sites, ApartmentTherapy. “What style are these chairs and sofa? Commenters all agreed: 1940s French Art Deco! My apartment building is Art Deco too, and was built in 1953. My living area truly is d’époque, period, and I didn’t even do it on purpose! I am very glad to finally have a couch after two years without, and the kitties are happy too.

Snow on the French Riviera

Posted in La France, Nice at 17:15

Oak behind the office, end of storm
On Wednesday (the 10th), we got news that a strong winter weather system was heading our way. Dozens of inches of snow were predicted for the hills, and up to six inches along the coastline — never before seen on the French Riviera. We get snow once every few years, but it’s usually a dusting, like we had in December, and melts by noon.

Thursday morning, I woke up to 4°C (39°F) and rain. I decided to try for the bus, and put on my nice hiking boots, wool socks, a turtleneck, and a wool knit cap, as well as taking along a pair of gloves just in case. I figured that if the bus came, it meant the weather was fine at our offices in Sophia Antipolis, some 28 kilometers (17 miles) to the west of Nice. The bus did indeed come; when we arrived in Sophia an hour later, it was raining there too.

Until just before 11am, that is. Snow began to fall, but it was still above freezing, so it wasn’t really sticking. Then the temperature began to dip, and the snow started picking up. By 11:30, the snow had built up noticeably. Roads quickly became blocked. The buses were no longer running. Not long afterwards, our prefect formally forbade drivers from going on the roads, and the highways were closed. Weather reports said that the worst was still to come in the evening! At 4:30pm I took the photo above, as well as a few others (full photoset here), and then my reflex’s battery died.

With roads still closed, buses not running and the news continuing to report a larger storm front about to roll in, I realized I was probably going to spend the night at the office. When I joked about camping in front of my office radiator with another colleague, he mentioned that he lived 8 kilometers (about 5 miles) away and was going to walk home — he offered to let me eat and sleep at his place. His children were with their grandparents, so there would be a spot for me without a problem. I took him up on his offer. In addition to working together, we often cross each other’s paths on the trails at lunch time — he goes running, and I go mountain biking. So we both knew we’d be fine with the 8-kilometer hike through snow.

It turned out to be one of the most beautiful hikes in my life. We passed the Mougins golf course, Fontmerle lagoon, and Picasso’s former home. Just as we passed the sign pointing to Picasso’s home, the setting sun set afire the Estérel coastal range beneath the grey storm clouds. I took these photos with my mobile phone, since it was the only camera we had available. A few minutes later, we looked behind us and had our breath taken away again, this time by the all-encompassing ink blue that was enveloping the Pré-Alpes just to the north of us. To the south, the sunset skies had transformed into pinks, purples and blues.

The next morning, it was below freezing, so we set out to walk the 8 kilometers back. It was more dangerous than on Thursday, since melting snow had frozen. We both had to catch ourselves from slipping a few times, but thanks to our trusty hiking shoes, we made it to the offices safely. Along the way, I took more photos (reminder, full photoset) and shot two videos:
o Etang de Fontmerle in the snow and morning sun
o Trail after the Mougins golf course, about a kilometer from Sophia Antipolis

Luckily the weather warmed up on Friday and I was finally able to get home by bus. There’s no more snow in Nice, but it is still falling heavily in the back country! And today I made sure to get some nice chocolates for my kind colleague.

Vous et tu

Posted in La France at 21:38

Once upon a not-so-long-ago time, I had a post on the finer points of the French second person pronouns “vous” and “tu”, which can be second person formal (for a single person) or second person plural, and second person familiar/informal (only for a single person), respectively. I get quite a few visitors to my site from searches and old links to that “vous versus tu” article, so thought I’d write a newer version.

When you learn French, you’re usually taught that “vous” is used to address groups, or, when applied to just one person, someone who’s older, an authority figure (for instance your manager, senator, president, etc.), or someone you don’t know well. And “tu” is used with a person you do know well: relative, friend, colleague, child, and so forth. When it comes to children under the age of 17, I’ve never heard anyone call them “vous”; it’s always “tu”.

Then there are the more subtle implications that come with these pronouns. In my own, now ten-year experience, I would characterize “vous” as the “respectful pronoun”, and “tu” as the “friendly pronoun”. While these meanings go along with the “formal” and “informal” descriptions, “respectful” and “friendly” are closer to the true sensation given when they’re used. That said, although an authority figure may call you “tu”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re friends and can address them with “tu”! The general rule of thumb is to call an authority figure, such as your manager, “vous” until they say “on peut se tutoyer !” which means “let’s address each other with ‘tu’!” and is the polite way to, basically, let you know that you can use “tu” as well, since they’ve probably been using it all along.

This is where the complications come in. Rule number one: Use “vous” with clients. Even if/when they tell you that you can use “tu” with them. Even when they insist that, really, they feel uncomfortable with you saying “vous” while they’re calling you “tu”, and you get along with them famously. Always. Address. Clients. With “vous”. Except when you use “tu”. Now you’re saying, “what?? But you made it rule number one and said ‘always’!” Yes, but I live in France, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in this country, it’s that when someone says “always” in France, it means “most of the time, except for the times when it’s okay, which you just sort of have to intuit, and if you’re mistaken, it’s your fault, but if you’re right, it makes things go much more smoothly.”

Example: When chatting about how things in general are going, if you know a client well and they’ve been using “tu” to address you (and, I would add, they’re not a Chief Head Director Manager), you can slip in a “tu” and see how they react. If they tense up, pretend that you didn’t really mean it by switching back to “vous” immediately, and don’t do “tu” again for a while, unless perhaps they invite you to. If, on the other hand, the person relaxes and talks to you more openly, congratulations! You can use “tu” safely whenever you’re not chatting about work. In any case, always use “vous” when discussing business matters. Why? “Vous” is a sign of respect, and also a sign of distance. In a professional context, it says, “you don’t need to take what I say personally, this is business.” “Tu” is always personal.

This can also protect you in professional life. Imagine, hypothetically speaking, that a client goes ballistic on you, using “tu” and calling you names that have nothing to do with your work, but are, instead, of a personal nature. If you respond angrily, but use “vous” and choose your comments with basic respect in mind, you’ll be fine. But if you use “tu”, even with essentially respectful responses? You can be written up or even fired with cause. Remember: “vous” is respectful, “tu” is personal. Practically anything (except clear insults) you say when using “vous” is tinged with respectful restraint. This is especially true in a professional context. (However, if you were to use “vous” with a friend, it would still be seen as distancing, and rude, since true friends always use “tu”.) On the other side of the coin, I’ve rarely seen anything good come out of fights that degrade into pointed “tu”s shot like arrows (the French have a peculiar way of pronouncing “tu” and “toi” when they’re really pissed off that makes it clear how little they think of the person they’re aiming it at). There are middle-of-the-road disagreements with “tu” just as there are in English, mainly between friends, but a civilized duel between people using “vous” will never attain the same unrestrained, in-the-dirt depth of brawls that only “tu” can reach.

In everyday life I’ve had to deal with a few difficult neighbors, and using “vous” with them has been instrumental: it can calm them down to simply point out, “moi, je vous vouvoie, alors vous voyez qu’il y a du respect, quand même !” which means “I’m calling you ‘vous’, so you can tell there’s respect, okay!” This almost always worked on a loud upstairs neighbor I had in my previous apartment. He would get drunk, turn on football (soccer) matches at two in the morning, throw around furniture, and inevitably I’d open my window and say, “baissez le son, s’il vous plaît !” (“Turn it down, please!” using “vous”.) He’d usually reply, “comment tu me parles, toi !!!” (Literally, “how are you talking to me!!!” but it has rather aggressive undertones in French; it’s more like asking “just who do you think you’re talking to!!!”) To which I’d respond with the “I’m calling you ‘vous’.” He’d calm down and say, “oh. Excusez-moi, madame,” which is the “vous” form, see!

As regards “vous” among relatives, it’s rare to see people still address family members with “vous”, but I have experienced it. My ex-grandfather-in-law was an exceptionally neat person, who, among other things, had been clarinettist in the Lyon National Orchestra and had fought in WWII as part of the French Resistance. (He would get terribly sad when telling stories about it, never proud; he’d always seen it as his moral duty to be a résistant.) When I first met him, I called him “vous”, as is the norm. Although he later said I could call him “tu”, I never could bring myself to do it; I felt too much respect for him. He had earned his “vous”. There are some families where grandchildren will vouvoyer (use vous with) their grandparents, so it wasn’t entirely unusual, but that is changing.

Table restoration

Posted in Home improvement, La France at 20:38

Louis XV table, in progress
A year and a half ago, I fell in love with an antique oak dining table in a secondhand store. Originally it was too expensive, but a month later, the price had fallen to one I could afford — no one wanted its black patina and slight damage. When I cheerily told the secondhand store owner I wanted to buy it, he sighed and said he was sorry about the damage, but that I could always paint over it. I said “oh non, jamais je la peindrais ! Ce n’est pas profond, je vais la poncer.” (“Oh no, I’d never paint it! It’s not deep, I’ll sand it.”) The owner looked at me and smiled, “c’est bien, c’est mieux comme ça.” (“That’s good, it’s better that way.”)

Thanks to a short visit by building management yesterday that required me to take the day off (to document the water damage from two months ago), I had plenty of extra time to do a project. Off to the home improvement store I went, to buy sandpaper and beeswax to redo my dining table. I’d long been ruminating how to restore it, and decided that sanding it by hand would be better than mechanically, since I only wanted to take the patina off and keep some of the table’s history, rather than erase all trace of previous usage. I’d settled on a beeswax finish for several reasons, mainly that oils don’t age well — indeed, linseed oil, which was used often in France (and still is), turns black with age, so it’s quite possible my oak table had been treated with it. Beeswax brings out the natural color of wood, doesn’t cause a patina, and still protects well. Paint and colored varnish were entirely out of the question, since I wanted to keep the table’s character.

Once home I started sanding with nothing more than sandpaper and my hands. The oak’s natural coloring, as shown above, was beautiful, and I was delighted at how the artisan had chosen the different grains for the border and Versailles-style top. It made me feel much better about taking off the patina, since once sanded, it was clear that this was a table whose woodwork was a work of art in and of itself, meant to be seen.

I applied two coats of beeswax (waiting two hours between them), let the table sit all night, then photographed it the next morning. The finished table: from the damaged end (showing how I didn’t sand out damage entirely), a photo with better lighting, and finally, with both extensions out. The beeswax really brought out the oak’s gorgeous coloring.

In a stroke of synchronicity, on my way home from work this evening, I passed an antique store with old books on sale. One of them was a 1967 home improvement book that I picked up as soon as I saw its instructions for reupholstering Louis XIV chairs. It also described some French furniture styles, which finally helped me ID my table, thanks in large part to the very typical legs for its style: it’s a Louis XV, also known as rococo. At home, I made my usual visit to the ApartmentTherapy site, where they had… a retrospect on Louis XV / rococo! I see rococo-style couches all the time in secondhand stores here, and now that I realize they’re from the same period as my dining table, I may well get one!

La soirée kabuki

Posted in Journal, La France at 12:41

As I approached the Casino de Monte Carlo, which also contains the Monte Carlo opera house, passing the Maseratis, Jaguars, Lamborghinis, Rolls Royces, Bugattis and Bentleys, I stopped in my tracks, wowed by a beauty I hadn’t expected to see much of: kimono. Not just one or two, but dozens upon dozens of Japanese women wearing gorgeous silk kimono with shibori, yuzen, embroidery, tsuzure weave and other designs, all wearing their obi (wide sashes/belts) tied in the traditional taiko style. I was delighted to be able to see what kind of kimono were worn to a kabuki performance: the formality ranged from irotomesode, the most formal I saw there, to iromuji, houmongi and tsukesage, which are usually worn to such performances, to tsukesage komon. (The least formal of kimono is the komon; women’s kimono types are described here.) There was even one woman wearing a cream tsukesage made of translucent ro, with a matching light blue ro obi woven with metallic threads. It was also interesting to see how the women wore their kimono: indeed, as I’d always read and seen in kimono books and magazines, older women wore their obi and obijime (cord tied around the obi) lower than younger women, some with it only an inch above the bottom edge. One older woman had a beautiful light grey iromuji with a black-ground obi, woven with metallic blue, green, silver and gold lozenges; a middle-aged woman had a forest green irotomesode with metallic embroidered flower rondels along the bottom hem and a silver obi; a younger woman had a bold yellow houmongi with yuzen flowers and an orange and gold obi. As for men, I only saw one man in the audience wearing hakama, entirely done in a beautiful deep grey. At the end of the performance, Ichikawa Ebizo XI was wearing a formal hakama outfit with five mon.

Then there was the opera house itself. It seats only 520; at least a fifth of the audience was Japanese. I had a seat in the second row on the middle left: this was my view, and the only photo I took since I wanted to enjoy the performance. At one point I remembered I should look at the opera house ceiling, since I’d heard it was richly decorated. As I looked up, I had to catch my breath — I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in my life, and yet I’ve visited Versailles, Florence, Venice, the Loire Valley castles, the Forbidden City… I think the difference was that for the first time, I was actually participating in an event that a particularly gorgeous edifice was meant for, rather than being a simple tourist. The ceiling and walls were gilded, sculpted, painted, with an enormous gold and crystal chandelier hanging in the center; there were tall windows onto the Mediterranean with immense burgundy velvet curtains that closed when the performances started.

Kagami Jishi was danced first. Seated so close to the stage, and on the side where Ichikawa Ebizo did most of his acting, I was able to see his delicate and subtle facial expressions, hand movements, and changes in body position. Videos you can find online come nowhere near conveying all the delicacies in a kabuki performance. I was also able to hear the quiet vocal cues given by both Ebizo and the musicians: the almost-whispered calls and pianissimo shamisen plucks that gave the time, tunings, stage cues and more. I could even hear the cords on the ko-tsuzumi being tightened and loosened by the first drummer. The musicians were exceptional, with precise timing and tuning. I was very happy to experience such a wonderful live Japanese music performance, because it greatly contributed to my appreciation of it. Listening to a recording, no matter how good, is simply not the same as witnessing the expert interplay between a flutist, shamisen and ko-tsuzumi on opposite sides of a stage, not facing each other, with no conductor and no cue other than a sub-vocal “oh”, and yet making their entrances in precise unison. Having been a musician myself, I know how much trust, skill and knowledge go into a simple entrance, especially when there are so few musicians — if just one is even slightly off, it’s obvious. They were always “on”, and it was breathtaking.

Narukami was done next, with Ichikawa Danjuro XII as Narukami, and Nakamura Tokizo V as Princess Taema, just as in the examples on that Narukami page. To my surprise, Narukami was a humorous play, and done with real artistry by the two men and their supporting cast. It made all the difference that they were older men playing the parts of younger people — their depth, composure and maturity threw the characters’ inexperience and immaturity into stark relief, making it even funnier. Ichikawa Danjuro honestly seemed to be having the time of his life; his performance was inspired. If he always performs like that, he’s an incredible artist indeed. For a play that was first premiered in 1684, Narita-ya has kept all its vivacity; it does not “feel” 325 years old at all.

Online you can read that kabuki pursues “on-stage expression that goes beyond mere realism.” In an era of digital special effects and never knowing what’s real and what’s not, I was amazed at how kabuki truly does evoke sensations and feelings in its audience. In Narukami, after Princess Taema has cut the cord imprisoning the dragon gods of rain, a thunderstorm begins. And you know it’s a thunderstorm, because the enormous, roaring o-daiko is the thunder, and the deafening, scintillating shamisen are the rain. It took me several minutes of childlike wonder before I finally figured out that the rain was, in fact, the musicians plucking their shamisen backstage, and not a digital effect. In short, an unforgettable experience. I hope to be able to attend kabuki again someday; it also reminded me of the better ballets and operas I’ve seen in my life, and how wonderful those can be too.

モナコでの歌舞伎 – Kabuki in Monaco

Posted in Journal, La France at 12:19

Yesterday evening, while walking to the bus stop to go home for the weekend, I noticed that the advertisement had changed, and had a Kabuki actor. To my great delight, on approaching close enough to read it, it was indeed for Kabuki, in Monaco! I could hardly believe my eyes. As long-time readers may remember, I’ve always loved Japanese culture and the Japanese language, and five years ago, nearly went to teach English in Japan, having been accepted by an elementary school on the outskirts of Kyoto. Kabuki is a popular form of Japanese theatre that was founded some 400 years ago. Invitation to Kabuki is an excellent site with information about its particularities.

Once at home, I went straight to the “Kabuki in Monaco” website to reserve tickets, and was overjoyed that I could get a spot for next Saturday evening’s performance. The first two kabuki actors are the most prestigious in Japan: Ichikawa Danjuro XII and his son Ebizo XI, of the Narita-ya kabuki guild. From their site: “Narita-ya is the yago, or guild name, of the Ichikawa family, the best known acting family in Edo kabuki. Narita-ya is also the earliest known yago in all kabuki.” As for the third, Nakamura Tokizo V is a well-known onnagata actor, meaning he plays female roles. The play they’ll be performing, “Narukami“, likely means that Nakamura will play Princess Taema, one of his best roles, and one of the Ichikawas will play the priest Narukami — indeed, the “Narukami” link has video of Nakamura Tokizo V and Ichikawa Danjuro XII playing those very roles.

As for the dance “Kagami Jishi” (The Mirror Lion, 鏡狮子 in Japanese), I was able to find it on YouTube, in several parts. It’s played by a different actor (Bando Tamasaburo V), and has nice commentary in English:
Kagami Jishi, part I
Kagami Jishi, part II
Kagami Jishi, part III
Kagami Jishi, part IV
Kagami Jishi, part V
Kagami Jishi, part VI
Kagami Jishi, part VII

Real-time French health care

Posted in Journal, La France at 13:00

I’ve had a gurgly stomach and painful abdominal cramps since Monday. Since my stomach is generally able to withstand pretty much anything I throw at it (the only exceptions being gluten and casein), I figured it would get better, but instead it’s worsened gradually. I could barely sleep last night for the pain, and was unable to move due to cramping after eating breakfast.

So, this morning I emailed our offices to let them know I was ill, then called my general practitioner at 9:20 am. My regular doctor wasn’t available until tomorrow morning, so I asked if another was. (I’m grateful to have found an office with three doctors, all of whom are good, upon my arrival in Nice nine years ago.) Another was indeed able to take me at 10 am — 40 minutes later. I took a quick shower, then walked to the doctors’ office, which takes 10 minutes.

I waited a half an hour, reading a couple issues of L’Observateur. Then the doctor examined me, diagnosing a bad case of indigestion, and prescribed me a proton pump inhibitor to take for a month (pantoprazole for anyone curious), an antispasmodic, and rest. He gave me an arrêt maladie (permission for work absence due to illness) for today, ran my carte vitale through his reader, and I wrote him a check for 22 euros, all of which will be reimbursed by the sécu and my supplementary insurance.

Then I went to a nearby pharmacy to fill the prescriptions. I presented my carte vitale; they already have my supplementary insurance on file. The pharmacist replaced the branded medications with generics, wrote the correspondences on the boxes so I’d know which was which, put them in a bag, and said “bonne journée, au revoir !” The medications are fully reimbursed, so I didn’t have to pay anything.

I was home by 11 am. It took less than two hours for me to make a doctor’s appointment, take a shower, go to the appointment, get diagnosed, pick up medication, and walk home. Total cost, once the 22 euros are reimbursed (tomorrow): Zero. Although I will admit the walk wasn’t much fun considering how tired and weak I am, but still, it was free monetarily speaking. It’s taking all the self-restraint I have not to make a scathing remark comparing this French experience to the US. And in my ten years in France, this experience is the norm — I usually get an appointment on the same day, within a couple hours of calling.

Related post explaining more about France’s sécu, the carte vitale, supplementary insurance, and why I paid at the doctor but not the pharmacy: Health care in France – Basics

Continued learning in France

Posted in Journal, La France at 13:25

For about a year now I’ve been toying with the idea of continuing my studies, having always wanted to get a Masters degree. After my BA in French, I was actually accepted to a Masters program in the same subject, but decided instead to stay in Europe. It’s a decision I’m glad I made, because in the years since then I’ve come to know myself much better. Ten years ago I thought teaching would be great, but after experience teaching privately, I discovered it’s not something I enjoy as much as I’d imagined. While I would like to teach children in public schools, you have to be a French or EU citizen to even apply for the degree programs. Meanwhile, in the time I’ve been working as a translator and in IT, it’s become increasingly clear that my dream career would be something that combines my loves of literature, languages and computing. This was what I kept in mind over the last year.

Lo and behold, such a dream career does indeed exist: librarian. With today’s information systems, being a librarian now entails having IT knowledge, and a common degree is the Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS). While public librarians may be the first to come to mind, there are other related careers as well: information retrieval specialist / reference librarian, archivist, information subject specialist, knowledge manager, manager of library and information organizations, technical services librarian, Web librarian, and so forth.

I looked at various programs in the US and in France, hoping to stay in France since leaving for more than 3 months would mean losing my long-term resident status and having to start over from zero if I ever returned to the country. But how to finance my studies in France? A friend answered for me: in France, there’s a program funded by the Fongecif for the Congé Individuel de Formation (CIF), or Individual Continuing Education Sabbatical. For continuing education programs of at least 6 months to a maximum of 6 years, on approval of your proposal, the Fongecif can reimburse your employer for your salary, while you do your studies. In other words: you continue to receive your full salary, if it’s less than twice French minimum wage (which is about 1300 euros gross a month), or if it’s more, you get 80 to 90% of your salary. On agreement with your employer, you can return to your company after finishing, or find work elsewhere. There are differing requirements to qualify for the Fongecif depending on your situation; in my case, as a permanent employee (I have a CDI), I need 2 years as an employee, which recently became the case.

As for the program I hope to follow, I jumped out of my chair and started bouncing around my apartment when I discovered that one of the best MLIS programs in France is not only in Lyon, a city I love and miss dearly, but it also offers an option called Systèmes d’Information Multilingues et Ingénierie de la Langue (SIMIL), which translates to Multilingual Information Systems and Language Engineering, with courses in French and English. The school is the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Sciences de l’Information et des Bibliothèques (ENSSIB), the degree I’m interested in is the MSIB (an MLIS), and they have other programs as well.

The first step is a Fongecif introductory meeting, which I’m going to attend this Thursday. If all goes well, the application process then begins.

French health care: comparisons with US

Posted in La France at 13:55

In my previous post on French health care, I went over the basics of how things are done here. In this post I’ll compare some statistics, citing Canada and the UK as well since those two countries have often been the focus of recent debate in the US.

The last time the World Health Organisation (WHO) ranked world health systems was in 2000 — they no longer produce rankings since it’s so complex a task. Here are how the four countries fared:
1. France
18. United Kingdom
30. Canada
37. United States
Countries such as Colombia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Chile also ranked higher than the US.

Life expectancy has become part of the debate in the US currently. These rankings were taken from the list of countries by life expectancy:
8. France, with an overall life expectancy of 80.87 years
14. Canada, overall life expectancy 80.34 years
37. United Kingdom, overall life expectancy 78.7 years
45. United States, overall life expectancy 78.06 years
The French live nearly 3 years longer than Americans, on average.

Another key issue is pregnancy and childbirth. Here are a few stats taken from Wikipedia’s list of countries by infant mortality rate. The first number is the infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births, and the second is the under-five mortality rate per 1,000 live births:
Iceland: 2.9 and 3.9 (they have the best numbers)
France: 4.2 and 5.2
Canada and the UK: 4.8 and 6.0
USA: 6.3 and 7.8

In France, pregnant women have 3 sonograms and blood tests (one per trimester), with a three-hour blood test around the 4-month mark. All covered at 100%. Anything beyond that’s deemed necessary is also covered 100%. Mothers-to-be get 6 weeks of paid vacation legal minimum before their birth date — it can be extended, for instance if the pregnant woman lives more than an hour’s commute from her offices. They then get 10 weeks after giving birth. Fathers get 11 days of paid vacation (18 days if they’re father to twins or more). Postpartum exams are covered. Parents are given allocations familiales depending on their need; all get a basic “starter” minimum of several hundred euros. There are also allocations to help cover childcare if/when the mother returns to work. Mothers have the option of working 4 days a week instead of 5; fathers can now do this too (but only one member of the couple can do this, and there is a sort of “salary cut” in that a few — less than 10 — vacation days are removed if they choose the “4/5 work week” as it’s called).

All this and per capita, in France we pay half what Americans do: Health Care Spending in the United States and OECD Countries (2007).

From another scientific study, Americans Spend More on Health Care But Are Not Healthier:

The study is the first to use a universal set of standards to compare the quality of health care in the five countries surveyed. The researchers found that no country scored the best or worst overall and that each country was the best and worst in at least one area. The study is published in the May/June 2004 issue of the journal Health Affairs.

Peter S. Hussey, lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Health Policy and Management, said, ”It is well known that the United States spends much more on health care per capita than other countries, and it is commonly assumed that we have the best health care system in the world. However, the results of our study show that the United States performs better than other countries in only a few areas, while performing worse in others. This raises the question of what Americans receive for all of the money devoted to health care.”

Health care in France — Basics

Posted in Journal, La France at 20:46

France has a public health system called “Sécurité Sociale”, also known as “Assurance Maladie”. It has a standardized, automatic, electronic system for processing bills and reimbursements. Every French citizen enrolled in “sécu”, as it’s called for short, receives a green card with a microchip, called “carte vitale“. The carte vitale contains only insurance-related information; no medical records are stored on it.

It is also illegal to publicly advertise pharmaceutical products and medical services in France. Quote from the linked article: “Direct-to-consumer advertising is forbidden in France for reimbursed and prescription-only drugs, with the exception of vaccines and products used [to help quit smoking].” Pharmacists, doctors, hospitals, etc. can only have office signs, for instance, and there are no TV advertisements for prescription medication.

Sécu covers a range of percentages, up to 70%, of basic care: general practitioner visits, opthalmologists, dentists, prescriptions, and so forth. Emergency care is always 100% covered. Prescription medication for chronic conditions is also always covered at 100%.

To cover the remaining percentage of basic care, you can choose a private health insurer. In France, those known as “mutuelles” (mutuals) are required to be non-profit, and also cannot advertise. They usually cover 100% of the remainder, with some exceptions for optical and dentistry. I happen to have one that covers 100% of everything, optical and dentistry included. For optical and dentistry there are reasonable limits, which means I can get “only” one free pair of prescription eyeglasses per year, for example, and there is an upper limit to the frames’ price.

Going to the doctor, the pharmacy and the ER
For regular doctor visits, when you go to the doctor, you show your carte vitale, which is put in a special reader. Since doctors can set their own rates — the government does not control them, it only sets a maximum amount beyond which it won’t reimburse — you pay for the appointment at the end. Your payment is reimbursed by the sécu at the going percentage, and the sécu transmits the details to your supplemental insurer, who then reimburses the rest per your policy — all electronically and automatically, direct to your bank account if/when you give your account details. (As a tangent, bank accounts are highly secure in France, and so it’s quite safe to give out a “deposit permission”. No one can take money from an account if all they have is the deposit info.)

When you go to a pharmacy, you again show your carte vitale. If you’ve been to the pharmacy before and they have your supplemental insurance information on record, you don’t need to show it again since they link it with your carte vitale. Since prescription medication prices are set by the government, if your supplemental insurance covers them at 100% beyond sécu rates, you won’t have to pay anything. At all. It’s processed automatically. (This is a VERY weird sensation when you’re an American and used to paying — 10 years later and I’m still not used to being given a bag of medication and just walking out.)

For emergency care, an example: three years ago I fell off my mountain bike and nearly broke my ankle. I had to call an emergency number. The firemen — they’re also trained EMTs here and so answer medical emergencies as well as fires — took me to the closest hospital. I was evaluated immediately on arrival. Only once they saw that I was at no immediate risk did the hospital ask me for my carte vitale. The firemen/EMTs hadn’t asked me for anything; they gave the hospital whatever information they needed. I had some X-rays and the wound was cleaned, then I was told to go to my general practitioner for follow-up, and I was sent home.

That was it. No bill. I was given copies of my X-rays and the doctors’ evaluations to show my GP, but nothing more.

My GP then prescribed physical therapy, an ankle brace, and pain medication. All of it was covered at 100%, and the only thing I had to “pay” for was the doctor’s appointment — as described earlier, it was automatically reimbursed 100%.

Paperwork and prices
To show how basic care is documented, I took a photo of my latest sécu and private health insurance reimbursement statements, along with a shot of my carte vitale so you can see what it’s like.

For information, my GP charges 22 euros. A specialist I go to regularly for my preexisting condition (covered 100%, because there’s no concept of “preexisting condition” in France) charges 45 euros. A packet of ten 500mg aspirin costs about 3 euros over-the-counter; it’s free when prescribed. A three-month supply of the Pill costs 27 euros. (The Pill is one of the only prescription medications not to be covered by sécu, so we do pay out of pocket for that — it’s the only prescription med I’ve ever had to pay for.) I don’t know what ER/hospital stays are charged because mine have always been entirely covered.

My supplemental health insurance costs me 20 euros a month. The national health insurance is paid as part of employer taxes; in my case, my employer pays 320 euros a month. That amount is paid directly to national health care, my salary is not affected. Everyone, not just employees, enrolled in sécu is covered, and as you can see from my case, you don’t have to be a French citizen in order to be able to enroll — you just have to work or study in France.

The only thing I have to worry about is having my carte vitale on me. If I don’t have it, it doesn’t matter, I’ll still be covered — I’ve been able to return to a doctor/laboratory/hospital (yeah, I’ve been around) with my card after minor emergencies when I hadn’t had my card on me at the time, no questions asked. I don’t have to worry how much anything costs. I don’t have to avoid doing sports out of the fear I might hurt myself and lose insurance coverage. I don’t have to worry about being able to afford medication. In the 10 years I’ve been in France, my health has honestly become something I only ever think about when I’m ill or injured, and even then all I need to do is call my doctor. I’ve always been able to get an appointment the same day.