Friday, April 27, 2012

Following the footsteps of my French ancestor

With a trip to the beautiful city of Albi upcoming, I'll have to move now to do the postings on the Loire!
I have tried to track the Retif origins before our 2008 holiday in Provence, as so many of us believe that the Protestants mainly arrived from Provence in SA.  No success and finally, after my arrival in France I have managed to find that François Retif lived in Mer in the Loire Valley and departed to SA from the Netherlands with his sister.  He arrived in the Cape in 1689 and adopted an 'e' into the name in the Dutch Cape so that the surname became Retief.  A few years later he married a lady from the region just north of where we are living now.
To my surprise I have realised during one of our trips to Fouras that Mer is along the way.  Due to Fouras being quite a drive from here, we never had the time to visit.  When my mom arrived last year and said she would like to visit a few castles in the Loire, I have asked her it she would like to stop on the way at Mer to see where her great great great....great grandfather came from.
The whole of France was in a grip of the most serious drought in years.  But on our arrival in Mer the rain came down. We walked through the rain up the main street and down narrow alleys along old walls and houses.  This was one of the strangest feelings I had on visiting a place in France. Both my mom and I could hardly believe that we are walking in a country that is not ours, but where our ancestor was born and bred. Trying to imagine what it would have been like during his lifetime in Mer.  Being only 11 km from Chambord, the royal castle where Louis XIV recalled the Edict of Nantes in 1685, 19 km from Blois where another royal castle is based, and 54 km from Amboise, another royal stronghold with its castle on the bank of the Loire River.  A more hostile environment you could not have asked for!

Searching a flat in Paris

While SA is having a long weekend, I wish for the same. I am completely exhausted today and can hardly walk on my feet.  Paris has many faces, kind and cruel. And it can be extremely cruel on your feet and legs if you prefer to walk, searching the kind faces.
After writing my English test and having an interview last Friday, I was surprised when the school informed me already on Monday that my application has been approved and I can commence my studies in October.  I know it won't be an easy road, especially since the classes will be in French.  But I have realised that if I want a professional life in France, the only way as an étranger will be to obtain a diploma in France.  The good and bad news were that I was told I'll have to work while studying, otherwise I won't be able to obtain my diploma.  Bad news as I was counting on the fact that with 6 days of class in a month, I'll have enough time to study and read the books that will be in French. And now I won't have that luxury, meaning much more stress!! Good news as we would have been out of pocket with our move to Paris and it will help our budget, as the company will have to pay me while working & styding at the same time. And also good news as the school will help me find a job and they have the network in France which I do not have.
Since JL started working in Paris in January, we were talking of moving to Paris. Even though the TGV between Reims and Paris only takes 40-45 min, one has to drive to the station, park, walk, in Paris one has to get from Gare de l'Est to the office. It all adds up to close to 3 hours per day.  Having travelled between Jhb & Pta for such a long time, I know that in the end, it drains you.  He also arrives late in the evening and we are now only having dinner at 8.45/9 pm (I think one of the reasons for not being able to loose weight, even though we're accusing the washing machine of shrinking our clothes...). With my upcoming involvement in Paris it is unavoidable to move, as the cost for two people to go by train to Paris on a daily basis is about the same cost of renting a minute flat.
Over the past few months we were discussing several options - selling our house, renting very small, renting little bit less small (small is the only affordable option in Paris...), buying another house close to his family.  Finally we have decided to keep our house to have breathing space during the weekends and rent very small in Paris. I still don't know if I'll survive in a very small space during the week, but time will tell.
Both of us being particular in where we would like to live, I've said I'll walk the various arrondissements of Paris.  For those who do not know, within the ring road around Paris, there are 20 arrondissements.  Outside the ring road does not count as Paris.  Due to the metro being so dirty nowadays and during peak hours almost impossible to use as it is so packed with people that you might have to wait for 4 or 5 trains before you can manage to squeeze into a little space on the metro, while being crushed by people and clinging to your handbag to protect it against the thugs that people are warning you against, we have decided we both prefer to walk rather than using the metro. It should be there only for an emergency or foul weather.  Fortunately my school is less than 1km from JL.  Hence, during the last month or two, as I had to go to Paris quite a few times, I combined my visits with an 'observation' of various arrondissements. 
The first visit was negative - scrap that arrondissement from the list... The next visit was more positive, I found a place that is wonderful, almost like a little village within Paris. I got more excited.  Slowly but surely I got to know the various faces of the different arrondissements, even giving in to a request of JL to have a look at two that are a bit further off which will force us to use the metro.  Unfortunately I was so focused, that I never remembered to take a camera with me (once living there, I'll do it again, but at a slower pace...).  Yesterday should have been my last day, I was hoping to finish with my list.  But with breakfast with two SA friends, a lunch with another South African, and 15 km of walking, I through in the towel while still having one hour left.  I just couldn't walk anymore.  My feet were raw (and I have confirmed last night that the skins are off).  I took the metro and waited in JL's office so that we can walk together to the station.  We had to walk, as we had an appointment to visit an available flat on the way.  The building from the outside didn't impress us, but the location was perfect, as it would have been so close to both his office and my school.  When we arrived there, I told him we cannot enter, we do not have a code. At that moment two people came out and we entered.  In Paris you'll often see these big doors and think behind it is the building, as the doors are fit into the building that you see. But once those doors open, they open on courtyards, sometimes beautiful interesting courtyards.  Not yesterday, it opened on a courtyard yes. But the building was in a bad state, not well maintained...JL tried to phone the lady, as we only knew it was on the 4th floor, but not which nr and it turned out there were different doors leading from the courtyard.  No luck, but as we had time, we took the lift in the one building.  Looking at each other, none of us impressed.  We walked downstairs still unsuccessful to reach the lady.  By then 20 min had already passed.  Back in the street JL received a sms from the lady to apologise, saying she left a message on our house nr that the flat is already leased (the add only came out the previous morning). We ddin't regret it though, knowing we cannot live in an environment like that.
My walk of yesterday took me through a beautiful park, but sadly the railway line running through the bottom of it (I'm not sure if it is still being used) was invaded by homeless people.  Rubbish were scattered all over the place, chairs were standing around and along the railway a group of people were gathering.  Halfway through the park I was thinking by myself that I am crazy to walk alone, I do not think that it can be safe. Fortunately there were a lot of people jogging and I took the shortcut to get out quickly. It is sad to see Paris deteriorating like that and the graffiti is getting worse and worse.  To my dismay I've catched a teenager writing on the metro's window.  She stopped when I told her that what she is doing is horrible. And when I got up from my seat I told her that it will cost her and her future children a lot of money to clean all this merde one day.  Not that I have confidence that she'll not repeat it in the future.  It was obvious she is coming from a troubled background and it is sad that the government is doing so little to clean up Paris and to find a positive way to improve the lives of the poor. And for those of you that might be mislead by the media, like so many French I fear, it is not the Sarkozy government reigning in Paris, but the socialist party.  Hence I do not have much faith in their current elections, especially as the media is blatantly one sided and influencing the public. Shutting all opposition of the socialist party or distorting what they are saying.  So much so for so-called democracy...  I also walked passed another beautiful park, but by then it was to take the metro back to JL's office, my feet and legs could no longer carry me.
Back to the property market in Paris.  For the uninformed.  For us, buying is out of the question in Paris.  With R1 m you can buy 10 m2 (in case you think I make a typing error, I'll write it out, for one million Rand you can buy ten square metres).  In fact, 20 m2 might cost you R2.5m!  To rent, for R15 000/m you can find about 40m2 (and less in the more expensive arrondissements...).  So 40 m2 is what we are searching for.  Saying we cannot live in less.  Not sure whether we can even live in 40...
You have to take into consideration whether the building has a lift if it is on the 4th or 5th floor, it is not evident.... You have to take into consideration whether it is on a noisy road, whether it gets some sun, whether it is bright, whether it is on a metro line convenient for us, whether the heating is electricity or gas (big difference in price), whether it is one amount for the building or whether consumption is measured individually, whether ...... etc etc etc.  But the worst - in Paris you can tell your landlord today you are moving out that same day. The landlord will have a new tenant that same day... There are such a shortage of flats, especially more affordable ones.  You can make an appointment (like us for yesterday evening), but the day later when you arrive, it is already leased.  You can go and have a look at a flat and say you want it, but if somebody else rock up after you with all the required paperwork before you, you won't have the flat.  The luxury of considering a few options and playing them off against each other does not exist.  You need to go with your papers and if you then feel more or less comfortable with what you see, you need to take it immediately, even if there might be another one on your list that might interest you more.  This is so against my way of operating - so think of me in the next month as our search continues....

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Practicing my English

Yes, that's true. I have to write an English monkey puzzle test this coming Friday as part of my admission to the management school.  While the other big 'schools' leave you in peace if you have worked or studied in English, this one regards it obligatory for all.  Being the perfectionist that I am, I've searched on internet for some examples.  Some are tricky as the nuances are so subtle, so with a score ranging from 60% to 100% ...I'll have to see what Friday delivers.  At least now I am forced to catch up on the blog to practice my English :)  JL and I are not so impressed with the management of the management school, as I was suppose to be there last week, but two days before the date, I was told it will be this Friday (to receive two e-mails with wrong dates and times after that before finally receiving a good one). 
Last Friday I've had my session with the Chamber of Commerce (where you do the registration of the company).  It was quite stressful, as I've managed to get the confirmation from the newspaper on the Thursday just before they have closed. To be at the tax office Friday morning well in advance before opening (8.30) to ensure that I'll be on time for my appointment with the Chamber (9.00)! (Things need to take place in a certain order...) From there I've walked with the file to the Tribunal de Commerce, who need to do the final registration in order to provide us with a company reg nr.  Normally the Chamber sends it to the Tribunal, but since I've told her it is urgent, she proposed that I go and deliver it personally.  At the Chamber you receive a siren and a siret nr.  What all these numbers are for, I still need to find out... For now, I wait for the company reg nr, which will be send by post... Once I receive that, I need to drive to the bank again (our branch is in another small village 30 min from here, as JL never changed his bank during the last 30 years..) to open the bank account (they need the original k bis, which is the reg nr) and then to the tax office again, to get a VAT nr (as they also want the original k bis). At least I can say we're almost there.  Phoning the tax office to ask what is the clause I need to put on an invoice to a company in SA, as they do not have to pay VAT, I was told that I'm asking a complicated question.  One of my biggest frustrastions is that the systems in France are so complicated, and I more and more get the impression that it is even too complicated for the French themselves!
Between all these driving and playing taxi for JL since two weeks ago, I can associate with all the moms' taxis out there.  He had to return his car to his previous employer and with our move to Paris in the near future, I do not want us to buy another car, as we won't need a car when in Paris and parking is very expensive (and difficult to find).  But he is such a good husband, always appreciating that I take him to the station and come and fetch him again.
My French got further practice, though not in the desired way.  The source? Our washing machine broke last week.  Convinced that it is the same problem than a few months ago, I called for a technician.  After going through an answering service where you have to respond to options by selecting a nr on the phone, I've managed to talk to somebody. And realise I do not know what is a top loader in French.  But between me and the lady, we've managed to understand each other and I was told the technician will arrive this Monday afternoon.  Sunday night the technician phoned to ask if he can come early Monday morning. I was delighted, as by then I already had a mountain of washing to do and calculating in my head how many days it will take to catch up again. Monday morning he arrive, to tell me after about 15 minutes that it is a big breakdown, the cost to fix it is almost the cost of a new machine.  The machine is already 10 years old, so we've decided to rather buy a new one. But I still had to pay €76 for the guy to tell me that!
Then the research started, with a visit to three shops yesterday morning, more research back home, then back to the final shop yesterday afternoon. Telling them I only buy their machine if they can deliver it by latest on Thursday. Fortunately the machine was marked down, so even paying extra for another three years' guarantee, I still paid less than the full price. Now I'm waiting with a pile of washing for tomorrow afternoon... (sadly, after two years in France, I am not so confident that the delivery will take place on time or without issues...)

Monday, April 2, 2012

To create an enterprise in France

Well, you might have thought that I have drowned in champagne as I was so quiet.  In fact, I think I need some champagne after what I have achieved.  I have read my first French book from start to finish (that excludes a few Tintin (Kuifie) and Asterix...). And the reason to celebrate is even more, as it was not any book, but a business book, and not any business book, but one with the title Guide fiscal et social du créateur d'entreprise.  I'm sure even those of you who do not understand French understand enough of this title that you will agree with me that it is not an easy topic!  And to acquire French is one thing, but to acquire French acronyms is another...
JL and I have decided, with some projects seriously on the horizon, that the time has arrived to create our own enterprise (in France you are not allowed to operate in your personal capacity, not even for a very small sideline job).  Since I have investigated this option for some time (although some time have passed since then), we had an idea of which type of business format to choose.  In SA it is so easy, you have far less choices (and a government that really have changed laws during the past decade to assist SMMEs) and the rules are not dramatically different between the various formats (in my opinion, after I have studied the French options).  In France you have numerous options and it is critical that you choose correctly, as once you have made your choice, it is very difficult to change (and costly) - and one option can result in a big loss and the other one in a small amount of money in your pocket, if you are fortunate, it varies for each format! 
With the statut, the proof that I've submitted the ad to be placed in a local newspaper of who will be the manager of the company, the proof that I have registered the statut with the revenue services (which already took up considerable time earlier that morning) and a cheque I've pitched up at the address we were given for the Tribunal ... to be send to the Tribunal de Commerce that was quite a walk from there ... to be told I must go to the Chamber of Commerce (also quite a walk from there - and getting in the car is pretty useless as you have some pedestrian areas, one ways, lack of parking).  By then it was already 12h00 - lunch time and everything closes for 2 hours.  So I had lunch on Place d'Erlon, fortunately it was a lovely sunshine day.  Not sure how far the walk is, I started a bit too early and arrived at the office at 13h15.  I was relieved when I saw somebody sitting behind the reception desk and I could enter.  She told me somebody will assist me at 13h30 when they start again after lunch (30 min earlier than what I was hoping for, so I was happy).
To my horror I was told that I won't be allowed to work in the enterprise as we have selected JL as the manager, thinking as he is French it might be easier. So we'll have to amend the newspaper ad. And the hear that I have to complete numerous other forms and that the social charges we'll have to pay is 46% of turnover. And that is before income tax and personal tax. 
I left the Chamber in a state of shock. How on earth can they expect one to pay so much tax?! The worst yet to come - there are numerous different social charges, of which some are fixed at a minimum.  After doing a few calcs I told JL we need to go back to the drawing board, otherwise we'll end up in a situation where we'll have to pay the French Government for the 'privilege' of having an enterprise. I've returned to the receiver to ask for the statut and that they cancel the registration, as we don't know what we'll do and it might take time.  That was two weeks ago...
After e-mails with a friend having holiday in Spain, two meetings with a CA, one meeting with an advisor on retirement, hours of researching and reading articles on the internet, searching for a good book (another mission...) and reading it, scrutinising JL's payslips to figure out the numerous taxes and comparing it with the other info I had ... I can answer one question that so many people have been asking me: How much tax does one pay in France? My response used to be that I cannot say as the system is so different from that in SA.  But now I can tell you the shocking news (and maybe those of you living in SA will go and drown yourself in champagne, considering yourself extremely fortunate to live there) - what you put in your pocket after paying all the taxes and retirement and medical etc only 28% of your cost to company.  It makes so much more sense now - high salary costs, but ordinary people around us, in fact, many battling financially.  And I just realise more and more what a misperception so many people have about the 'rich' Europeans, having no idea how much tax they are paying, just hearing of high salaries.
I had to dust my excel modelling skills and built a model comparing four options that we are considering, trying to see which one will result in the max money in our pocket. That we can at least have a small benefit of the risks that we have to take and our hard work.  Still lacking some final info, I hope to be able to finalise all by the end of the week. But what a learning curve! I have acquired new vocabulary and most importantly, a better understanding of the French system. And I promise you - starting an enterprise in France ... is nie vir sissies nie!!!!
Other things that have kept me quite busy was a full day in Paris attending a conference on the evaluation of development projects (but it was the first day after our time was changed to summer time, hence I was very sleepy after getting up much earlier than usual). I left earlier to meet some friends who were in Paris for a few nights.  It was wonderful to see them and even though they are English, my brain just kept on switcing my tongue into Afrikaans!
I have also applied to study a Specialised Masters, starting in October. That was another exercise - to research all the possible courses and universities. Once again, a system so different from that in SA! And the arrogance of the professors of some grandes écoles (famous universities with supposedly very high standards) choked me. So I've opted for the 'school' with the friendliest staff and most affordable courses (it is very very expensive to study here).  My file was submitted this past week, so if they accept that, the next step will be to appear in front of a panel on 12 April to be interviewed.  All in French as the course will also be in French (unfortunately the ones presented in English were very expensive or did not interest me).  So cross your fingers that I'll survive!
I know I owe quite a few people responses to their mails, please bear with me! I hope to recommence blogging and responding to mails by next week!