les petits différences et les grandes similitudes

The big culture shocks come and go quickly.

Different food, a different language, different mannerisms – these are initial big hits, but hits that are easy to digest and then are quickly normalized. For example, I’m now completely used to the fact that the cheese section in most supermarkets here is five times the size of the cheese section in an American supermarket. And I’ve stopped trying to hug people when I see them on the street and instead I automatically give them a kiss on each cheek, known here as bisous.

But for me, it’s the smaller differences that are more affecting in the long run, that stick out and consistently surprise you when you least expect them to. While concentrating on the obvious cultural differences, it’s the little things that have the insidious tendency to throw you off long after you have convinced yourself that you have mostly assimilated yourself to this new culture.

The square pillows, for example. Or the couette on my bed, for which getting the cover on is an endlessly frustrating exercise that more often than not results in me having to climb completely inside in order to make it work. Or the fact that folks drinking wine in a café at 10am is not an automatic red-flag for alcoholism, but a socially accepted occurrence. The idea of “day-drinking” and its related stigma is simply not a concept here.

There’s the fact that hallway lights are almost always on a timer, and that I don’t have a say in when or how they go on and off. Or the fact that a big package of toilet paper costs around $2 and a package of Q-tips is less than $1 and organic milk is less than $2, but a plastic hairbrush will run you around $15.

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It’s seeing dogs in restaurants, or in grocery stores, or off-leash without anyone making a fuss. Or that to not have a TV is considered normal by many, that to own one means the government will tax you 60€ every year, and that those who don’t own one are not always considered to be “hippies” or “freaks”. Or that turning the water off while scrubbing dishes or scrubbing yourself in the shower is often expected, even when there’s no fear of drought, and to not do so is often a dead giveaway that you’re an American.

Or that everyone’s shoes seem to be perfect, all the time, which instinctively makes you want to buy new ones so that you fit in, only to have to face the reality that similarly to the hairbrush, shoes cost twice as much here as they do back home.

But then on the other hand, your rent is less than half. And unlike in the “free market” of the United States, here your landlord legally cannot raise your rent without a solid financial justification to do so. Which is one of many reasons why there isn’t a housing crisis, why people with jobs aren’t living on the street because they were booted out of their flat with 30 days notice after their landlord decided to double their rent because of gentrification. Which is why there is no “tent city” in the middle of the town here, and when you mention the tent cities back home to your friends here, the only frame of reference they have is the conditions in refugee camps.

And then you remember that at least in terms of economics, the tent cities back home really are a form of refugee camps, and the only reason they’re not viewed that way is because the amount of ideological brainwashing and lack of critical thinking has resulted in an American populace that is unable to draw connections between the systemic forces that create refugee camps in Europe and the systemic forces that create tent cities in the United States.

And then there’s that day when you’re drinking a cup of coffee at a café, minding your own business and trying to write, when you see a man yelling in the street, obviously going through some sort of psychological distress. But instead of tuning it out, as you so often would do back home, you find yourself unable to ignore it, and then you realize that the reason you are paying such close attention is because this is the first time in two months that you’ve witnessed something that is a daily occurrence in any given US city.

And not only are you paying attention, but everyone else is too. Everyone is concerned. Nobody’s looking away, nobody’s averting their eyes, nobody’s apathetic. They are concerned and trying to help. You watch someone make a phone call, and a few minutes later, a crew of emergency workers shows up. Not cops, mind you, not someone who is about to arrest him and take him to jail, but a group of folks who look like something between paramedics and social workers, who calm him down, ask him what he needs, and then upon his request, take him to what you can only assume to be either a shelter or a medical facility.

And not only are you in complete and utter shock at the entire scenario, from the lack of apathy to the fact that it didn’t end in a violent arrest and that there are actually services available for this man, but it’s a double-whammy in that unlike the differences in foods and the price of a hairbrush, pretty much nobody here save for your other American friends can relate to or understand your shock. For the type of scenario that you used to witness on a daily basis in you hometown is inconceivable to most folks who were born and raised in a country where people generally get their basic needs met, and it would be both too painful as well as too frustrating (in terms of disbelief) to try to explain that you spent years advocating for people just like him, only to watch it descend into an episode of state-sanctioned violence more times than you could possibly count.

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But then there’s the things that generally remain unchanged, the things that for better or worse are a universalism across the Western world. And those things are shocking too – their similarities hit in a comparable way to the differences I describe above, but for a very different reason. Like when you go into a bathroom and you realize that you’ve gained enough language skills to recognize the French equivalent of “suck my dick” and “for a good time, call…” scrawled on the inside of the stall. Or the ubiquitous penis graffiti that can be found outside the bar when you exit the bathroom.

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Or the punk kids with mohawks and big dogs that congregate in the city center, begging for money and cigarettes. Or when you walk past a light-post and spot stickers warning you of the dangers of chem-trails (which surprise you a bit only because you kinda hoped that a society that overall has a much higher capacity for critical thinking than that of your native country would know better, but nonetheless it’s a strange comfort).

Or when you spot a teenage girl sitting on a stoop, glaring sullenly at another girl walking with a cute boy, and you quickly recognize the dynamic and immediately empathize because after all, you were once her too.

And it is in those moments that tie together something very deep and meaningful for me, which never fail to remind me despite my being a “foreigner” here, under the myriad layers of cultural differences, there is something deep and unexplainable that links us all. That is to say, there’s something about the penis graffiti and the sullen teenagers that almost completely wipe out my frustration with the shape of the pillows.

But I’ll admit that I still resent paying $15 for a hairbrush.

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le siège et la truie

While I’m certain that I was far from the first to notice or say such a thing, one of my first observations about American suburbia as a teenager (which was rooted in dark humor but disturbingly true nonetheless), is that far too many of the streets were named after either the trees we killed to make way for them and far too many of the towns seemed to be named for the Native people that we killed in order to “settle” those areas.

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Oak Street, New Orleans. Photo by Infrogmation.

And in my extensive travels through and across the United States over the next two decades, including but definitely not limited to five cross-country journeys by car, the observation only stood out more and more. The tendency wasn’t limited to streets or towns, but also extended to schools, gated communities, public parks, the list goes on and on. If I had a dollar for every time I drove past something called “Mohawk Estates” located on “Pine Street”, I’d probably have enough money to start a decent reparations fund as well as a tree-planting operation.

But to be frank, all this is quite expected from a colonial-settler state which was “founded” on stolen land under capitalist principles and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

In contrast, one of the things that initially made me fall in love so hard with France is that no matter what city you are in, the streets are mostly named after either notable historical figures, significant places, or significant historical events. Much of the time such namings are localized – many of the streets in Rennes, for example, are named after former mayors or governors of this city – but many of them are also named for nationally or internationally known figures, and not always French figures either. Rennes has streets named after General George S. Patton (who liberated Rennes from Nazi occupation in 1944), Mother Teresa, and Pablo Neruda, among many others.

But for me, it’s the streets named after local figures that interest me the most. Given that this city is over 2000 years old, any given street name potentially contains a fascinating story, which makes every street in itself a miniature history lesson, especially for a foreigner like myself. And some of the stories behind these historical figures are priceless in terms of capturing the essence and spirit of this city.

One of the greatest examples of this can be found literally right outside my door, on the street I live on, rue de Penhoët.

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The street itself dates back to the medieval era, and was first called rue de la Fracasserie due to the constant noise that came from it being a blacksmith’s row, and later was named rue de la Poulaillerie after a poultry market which was held there until the beginning of the 20th century. Many of the current buildings on the street date from the time it was a blacksmith’s row, and the street contains the smallest building in all of Rennes, which dates back prior to 1720. After the poultry market closed, the residents of the street petitioned the city to rename the street, and it was then given its current name, rue de Penhoët, by the municipal council of Rennes in 1903.

Guillaume de Penhoët (1325-1404) was born in Plouégat-Guérand in Finistère, the son of a nobleman. The event which guaranteed him a spot in the collective memory of Rennaises came during his tenure as the governor of Rennes in the 1350s, a position to which he was appointed after a career as the captain of the Royal Fleet. During the War of the Breton Succession (1341-1365), which was fought between two noble families over control of the then-independent Duchy of Bretagne, Rennes (then a walled city) was besieged by English forces from 1356-1357. Knowing full well that the townspeople inside the walls were suffering from severe famine, the English decided to graze approximately 3,000 pigs right outside the Porte Mordelaise, the main gate to the walled city, in the hopes that the desperate townspeople would open the gates and pursue the pigs in desperation, allowing the British to then enter and overtake the city.

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The Porte Mordelaise

But de Penhoët outsmarted the British. He hung a live sow from a postern near the main gate. The squeals of the sow caused the grazing pigs to rush the gate, at which time he opened the gate and let the pigs run through before the British had any idea what had happened. The townspeople, saved from famine, mocked their besiegers from the ramparts. The siege was lifted a short time after, following a treaty between England and France.

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After I learned this fascinating tale, an important question still remained for me: But why were the British involved in a war between two Breton houses of nobility?

The War of the Breton Succession was in itself a part of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), which was not a single war but actually a series of wars between England and France over the control of and succession to the French throne. The War of the Breton Succession was not only a battle over the land of Bretagne itself, but an auxiliary theatre in a much larger conflict in which not only royal allegiances but Salic law became a primary issue.

In short, the two houses that fought for control of Bretagne, the House of Blois and the House of Montfort, had a fundamental difference between them in the House of Blois claimed the right to the Duchy of Bretagne based on female succession, while the House of Montfort claimed the right to the Duchy based on a male heir.

The two houses had been interconnected through marriage and divorce throughout the prior century, and both houses had ancestral links to England. When John III, Duke of Bretagne, was near death in 1334, he refused to cede the Duchy to his half-brother, John of Montfort, due to his hatred of Montfort’s mother, John III’s stepmother. Meanwhile, his niece Joanna had married into the House of Blois, which granted her and her husband Charles of Blois a potential claim to the Duchy of Bretagne, but John III died before the matter could be resolved.

After his death, both John of Montfort and Charles of Blois claimed the right to the Duchy. The French king supported the House of Blois, which laid claim based on Joanna’s relationship to John III, while the English king, justifying his choice based on Salic law (which forbid inheritance based on female succession), supported the house of Montfort. This dispute, which originated as an internal affair, soon became a significant conflict within the larger political turmoil of the Hundred Years’ War. While the Hundred Years’ War was eventually won by the French Crown, the War of the Breton Succession was won by the House of Montfort in 1365, which was backed by the British. But the British victory did not include a successful invasion of Rennes, thanks in large part to the actions of Guillaume de Penhöet.

And although it cannot be historically argued that the larger political motivations regarding succession had any bearing on the actions or loyalties of Guillaume de Penhöet, the fact remains that aside from his heroic actions that halted the famine in Rennes and prevented a siege by the English, he was also indirectly fighting in the name of female succession.

(This is the first of what I hope to find the motivation to continue as a series of vignettes about the history of Rennes based on the street names…)

 

le dimanche

I wake up at ten o’clock here in Rennes every Sunday, whether I choose to or not.

In my former life in the States, I readily admit that such an interruption would have likely infuriated me. But here, I have found an unexpected joy in this weekly event, both in terms of the overall circumstances that make up Sundays as well as the specific noise which wakes me up: cathedral bells.

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Specifically, the cathedral bells from the Église Saint-Melaine in the city center of Rennes, a beautifully glorious cacophony of sound that goes on for a half-hour straight. Sleeping through it is absolutely impossible, at least for me. But getting annoyed by it is equally impossible for me. And yet, I know I wouldn’t have always felt this way about it.

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When I first arrived in France sixteen months ago, Sundays came as quite a shock for me. As a person born in raised in a culture that is geared primarily towards convenience, I had a very hard time adjusting to a society in which nearly everything is closed on Sundays. I’ve never been good at planning ahead, and so the idea of making sure I have everything I need until Monday on Saturday night does not meld well with my habits. Not only that, but my first association with such a tradition other than a loss of convenience was that of boredom due to past experiences.

I spent my high school years going to school in one of the few counties left on the East Coast where blue laws were and are still in place. In Bergen County, NJ, to this day all stores are closed by law on Sundays unless they sell food or printed reading material. And in a county where pretty much the *only* thing to do as a teenager was to hang out at the mall, Sundays were a special type of torture, a dreaded weekly ritual of utter boredom that eventually resulted in most of us engaging in various illicit activities in order to waste the time away.

However, context is everything, and I have now come to understand and appreciate that the effects of blue laws in the cultural wasteland that is northern New Jersey was/is completely different than Sundays here in France, where despite commerce being shut down for the most part, there is always a plethora of activities, cultural and otherwise, that take place on any given Sunday. Blue laws are rooted in Puritanism and Calvinism, in the idea that Sunday was a day solely for the Lord and that no fun was to be had. In France, however, while Sunday traditions are still rooted in Christianity, the intent is much more focused on a “day of rest” than a “day without sin”.

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A braderie, or clearance street sale, in Rennes last Sunday.

Stores are closed, but bars are open. Not only open, but often packed. And especially in the warmer months, there is a constant stream of public concerts, street parties, sidewalk sales. Here, Sundays are for fun, for enjoyment, for relaxation. It is a time to get together with family and friends, to play board games and have picnics by the river, to nap in the park with a bottle of wine while a brass band plays in the background.

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However, while being woken up by cathedral bells on Sundays is typical, there are other sounds that you will *not* hear. Because not only are Sundays meant as a day where one rests and does not work, that principle is enforced by many municipalities in the form of noise ordinances. Running a chainsaw or a leaf blower on Sundays is legally prohibited through much of France. One of the most beautiful things about the cathedral bells is that its the *only* sound I hear at 10am. They ring through the silence.

The prohibition on work-related sounds on Sunday is one of those areas that demonstrates the differences in how the French perceive freedom compared to how Americans perceive freedom. As I’ve written about before, the American idea of “freedom” is mostly concentrated on the idea of positive liberties, or the ability to do what one wants without hindrance or restriction. In France, however, “freedom” is understood much more as a balance between positive liberties and negative liberties, meaning the idea of “freedom from” as opposed to “freedom to”.

From an American perspective, not being allowed to run a leaf blower on Sundays would be often viewed as an infringement upon one’s freedom. Its when I mention such things to conservative Americans that I often hear rumblings about the evils of “socialism” and other related nonsense. But in France, the right to be able to enjoy Sundays without having to listen to such a noise is what is valued as freedom. The right to be free from such interruptions is valued over the right to be able to do whatever you like.

At the end of the day, the difference is a value system that prioritizes the common good instead of individual desires. And for me, I’ll take the sound of cathedral bells over the sound of a lawn mower any day.

comment apporter un chat en France

How To Bring A Cat To France: An Attempt at a Simple Explanation

There are many resources online that attempt to explain this process, but I have yet to find one that’s clear, concise, realistic, and accurate. Here’s my attempt to fix that. Although I’m told that most EU countries have the same requirements, there are a few countries where it apparently differs so I want to make it clear that these instructions are specific to France.

First off, you don’t need to put the cat in quarantine. That is by far the most prevalent myth I have come across – nearly every time I’ve mentioned to someone over the past several months that I was planning on bringing my cat to France with me, the other person would mention that they had heard that quarantine is necessary. So let me make this clear: QUARANTINE IS NOT NECESSARY.

However, the process itself is very exacting, and if you screw it up at all, upon arrival you will theoretically have three options: an expensive and lengthy quarantine, sending the cat back to the US at your expense, or euthanasia.

The process is as follows:

Airline Requirements and Procedures:

First, you need to find an airline that will accept your cat on an international flight. I flew out of JFK, and as of this writing most of the airlines that fly to France did not accept pets in either the cabin or the cargo hold. Most of the low cost airlines – Norwegian, WOW, etc., do not transport pets internationally. The only airlines I could find out of JFK that will transport animals were Air France, Lufthansa, and XL Airlines, and of those two XL was the only affordable option for me.

There are two options: travel in the cabin or in the cargo hold. For health reasons, the cabin is recommended. There are size and weight restrictions for traveling in the cabin – Air France requires that the cat and the carrier combined weigh no more than 8kg or 17 pounds and XL’s maximum is 7kg or 14.4 pounds. The carrier must fit specific dimensions, which varies by airline and can be found on their websites. There’s a bit of flexibility in that requirement, as a soft-sided Sherpa carrier can squish a bit to fit the dimensions. Most Sherpa carriers weigh between 3 and 4 pounds. I got my medium size Sherpa carrier down to 2.5 pounds by taking out the hard piece which lines the bottom, the two plastic poles which shape the top, and the long strap.

If you are over that weight or size, the only option is to travel in the cargo hold, which requires a very specific steel cage carrier which each airlines specifies in terms of height and weight. Travel in the cargo hold is also most expensive. For XL, travel in the cabin is $55 and travel in the cargo hold is $75. If you put the cat in the cargo hold, you will be asked to sign a liability waiver which states that the airline is not responsible if the animal dies in the hold. Again, try to do the cabin if you can.

Most airlines will not allow snub-nosed cats in the cargo hold because they often have respiratory issues.

All pet travel reservations must be made when your reservation is made.

Veterinary Procedures:

First, your cat needs a microchip that is ISO compliant, which means that it can be read by a microchip scanner in the EU. If your cat is already microchipped, you need to find out what kind of chip your cat has and whether or not its ISO compliant, and if it isn’t, you need to have the car microchipped again. Many are not. The “HomeAway” brand of microchip is the most common one that is ISO compliant. 

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Squirrel and I at the vet for her health certificate appointment. To say that she was not happy is putting it kindly.

Then, your cat needs a rabies vaccine, and the rabies vaccine MUST be given AFTER the cat has an ISO compliant microchip. If your cat was vaccinated prior to being chipped, you need to have the cat vaccinated again after an ISO compliant microchip is implanted. The rabies certificate MUST have the microchip number listed. This also MUST be done at least 21 days before travel. Rabies boosters expire after a year, so if your cat already has an ISO compliant microchip and a rabies vaccine but the vaccine is over a year old, you need to have the cat re-vaccinated, again at least 21 days before travel. You will need an original copy of the rabies certificate with the microchip number and the signature of your veterinarian.

Then, no more than 10 days before you are set to travel, your cat needs to have an exam and a health certificate filled out by a USDA accredited vet. Most vets are not USDA accredited. Google is your friend, and/or you can contact the USDA for a list of accredited veterinarians. Since most vets are not USDA accredited, those who are tend to charge an arm and a leg for the health certificate. In suburban NJ, the cost of the exam and the health certificate came to $300. You need to provide a blank bilingual model health certificate. There are websites that will sell it to you, but the USDA APHIS office has it as a free download.

After you have acquired the health certificate, that health certificate then needs to be endorsed by the nearest USDA APHIS office. There are two ways to do this: overnight mail, or an in-person visit by appointment. If you go the overnight mail route, keep in mind that if you are missing any needed information, your endorsement may be delayed and you may not get it back in time. My suggestion is to have it done in person if at all possible. The USDA endorsement costs $38, and is only payable by credit card or money order. You need to bring or send a copy of the rabies vaccination certificate as well as the signed health certificate.

I got the endorsement in person at the USDA office at JFK airport. And when I was there, I discovered that despite paying $300 for my health certificate, the vet had goofed in a few places – she didn’t write the dates of vaccination correctly (she used the US format MM/DD/YY instead of the French format DD/MM/YY) and she also forgot to put her phone number next to her name, which means that if I hadn’t been there in person my paperwork would have been delayed.

Once you have the endorsed health certificate, you are good to go!

Actually Flying With the Cat:

When I checked in for our flight from JFK Airport in NYC to Paris, the airline staff asked for and examined my USDA endorsed health certificate thoroughly. However, they (XL Airlines) did not weigh the cat to make sure whether or not she was under the weight limit. I can’t say whether this is typical or not, but it was a bit annoying on a personal level as I had stripped the carrier of the padding and kept the cat on a diet for a month to make sure she was under the weight limit.

The other surprise, which I also don’t know whether is typical or not, is that the airline staff at check-in was the only person to ask for the paperwork. Despite the fact that there’s a section at the end of the paperwork that is supposed to be filled out by French authorities upon landing, nobody asked for it upon my arrival at CDG in Paris. Despite the fact that I was told that the cat would be scanned upon arrival, hence the necessity for an ISO compliant microchip, customs officials at the airport waved me through without asking for anything despite very much noticing that I had a cat with me.

And that was it. The cat and I were in France, and a week later she has settled in quite nicely.

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“My shelf. Fuck off…” says Squirrel.

Other Considerations: 

Sedation: I was advised against sedating the cat unless absolutely necessary. And it was not necessary – my cat was silent through the entire journey – 17 hours from door to door – and slept most of the time. However, several people I know who are knowledgeable in animal medicine told me that if you think that sedation is necessary, gabapentin is the safest form of sedation.

Nature Calling: Cats can hold it for a LONG time. Seriously. Think of the cat who is stuck up in the tree for several days straight. They’re holding it the entire time. When cats are stressed or uncomfortable, its often typical for them to hold it for many many hours at a time. And sure enough, after 17 hours of not relieving herself, my cat showed little interest in the litter box for several hours after I finally let her out of the carrier. So don’t worry about the bathroom issue. Your cat will probably be fine.

une lettre en amérique au moment du départ

(this is a slightly edited and expanded version of a letter that I posted on Facebook from the airport as I was returning to France. I realize that some context is missing and I will do my best to fill those gaps in as soon as I am settled…)
This is my last day on American soil until further notice. For many reasons, I honestly don’t know when I will ever return. I’m not saying that I won’t return, but that such a decision is as much in question as the future as a whole is in question right now. And there’s a few things I need to put forth before I remove myself from the egregore that is America. So here goes:

I think that America-the-idea is not one that can be saved. It is rotten to the core. For centuries we have been ideologically brainwashed into believing a whole litany things about “America the Beautiful” that are not and have never been true. People of color for the most part have always known this. White people are only now beginning to wake up to this reality en masse, and its going to be a real bumpy ride as they go through the various stages of grief around accepting it. But it stands as it is. If we ever want to live in a society that can truly live up to the ideals that “America” promised, we need to start anew. I have no love for “America”, never have, and never will, and at this stage in my life I feel both grateful and guilty that I never bought into the lies, as I have much less baggage to shed than the majority of white Americans do.

That being said, America-the-populace, while divided, stands as one of the most beautiful things, both collectively and individually, I have ever known. I have no interest in saving America, but Americans are a different story. Americans deserve better than this – no matter your color, origin, gender, or socioeconomic status. We ALL deserve better. Living in America is akin to living in an abusive relationship. I’m not a fan of states, but the American people deserve better than what they have been given by this state, and I will continue to fight for them, no matter where I may be.

I need to leave. This has been made clear to me more times than I care to think about. As much as I’ve risked and sacrificed to do what I am about to do, I know that personally the consequences will be much worse for me if I stay. And so I go. But does that mean you need to leave? Does that mean that you should leave? Not necessarily. We all have different roles in the battles to come. My advice is to listen to your gut, listen to your gods, listen to those who you trust the most.

But I will say this – don’t shame anyone for their decisions. Stop telling people that leaving is a matter of ‘privilege’ – especially in terms of white and white-passing people, not only do such statements demonstrate a real lack of understanding as to what that term actually means, its an insult to our ancestors, many who fled the EXACT material conditions that many are fleeing today. Everyone’s life circumstances are different. Everyone’s needs and desires and tolerances are different. I’m doing what I need to do to survive. Your survival may look different. I honor your choices. Please honor mine in return, as well as the choices of the others that you know and love. Ask yourself: what are you willing to die for? The answer will be different for everyone. And its not your job to try to convince others that your role is the same as theirs.

And if you do need to get out, one of the things I am dedicating myself to from this point on is being a resource for those who do have that need. Contact me if you need help or advice – whether we know each other or not is irrelevant. As a friend said the other day, the first rule of rescuing others from quicksand is to not be in quicksand yourself. I will no longer be in quicksand, and will be able to lend a helping hand to the best of my ability. I will be writing much more on this topic in the future.

Remember that the future is unwritten. Remind yourself of that every morning. Remember that you are as much an architect of the future as anyone else. Remember where your power lies. Remember where your fault lines are. Tread carefully. As Cora once said, “walk in beauty, run in freedom.”

Remember power. Remember love. Remember beauty. Remember freedom.

Remember the words of famed abolitionist Theodore Parker, words that inspired MLK a century later: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

Remember justice, and never stop fighting. Fight for yourself, fight for your loved ones, fight on behalf of your ancestors, fight on behalf of your descendants. Never stop fighting.

Remember that your heart is the same size of your fist, and can often have the same effects. Keep loving and keep fighting.

I love you all so much. And I thank you all from the bottom of my heart, for what you have done, for what you are doing, and what you will continue to do in the future.

choix et corruption

I am sitting in Place Saint-Anne in Rennes, by far the most leftist city in France, and it’s only a few hours before the first round of the Presidential elections in France are decided.

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I wrote a basic run-down of the French elections for Gods&Radicals this week, which can be found here, but in the week since I wrote that piece I have learned and thought much more about the differences between the American elections and the French elections.

For many, the last election in the United States demonstrated more than anything the level of hegemonic control that the two parties hold over American politics and the perceived impossibility that such a stranglehold can ever be broken. Currently, the primary argument I hear from progressives and liberals in America is that the rise and fall of Bernie Sanders as a viable candidate has shown that we all have no choice but to rally behind the Democratic Party, and that our best shot at “change” is to rework the Democratic Party from within.

I laugh when I think of that right now, just as I laugh at everyone who thinks that the root of corruption in the American political system is due to Citizens United and that overturning that decisions in the magic bullet which will return power to the people. I laugh hysterically, as someone who has been observing the elections here in France for the past month, and can’t ignore the tension in the air a few hours before the results of the first round are announced. A round, mind you, in which four candidates have a legitimate chance at advancing, and two of them are from political parties that are less than two years old.

What’s the difference, you ask? Aside from the differences I outlined in the article I wrote for G&R, it really comes down to another core difference in how the French interpret “freedom” compared to Americans. What Americans and their respective court systems consider to be “free speech” in terms of the terms and rules of Presidential elections are regarded by the French as cheating the system, and so many of those aspects of “free speech” are prohibited here in order to level the playing field.

A few examples: campaign advertising on television and print media is forbidden. You will never see an ad for a candidate, which means that the amount of exposure/and or propaganda that French citizens are subjected to regarding a candidate or their positions is NOT determined by the amount of money backing them. Again and again, its been proven that in the United States that it’s pay-to-play. The candidate that spends the most money, and saturates the airwaves the most, usually wins. In France, this is not the case.

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Commercial billboards are also forbidden. While there are posters for various candidates everywhere you look, they are hung up (and then torn down and/or defaced) by the candidate’s supporters, not by corporations who sell space to those candidates.

Private mailings are forbidden as well. Each voter gets one packet, with an informational brochure from each candidate. That’s it. No third-party corporate-backed propaganda flyers, as opposed to what fills every American’s mailbox on a daily basis during election season.

It is in large part due to these differences that candidates such as Jean-Luc Mélenchon have a chance in a country which is still dominated by two major parties. The factors that doomed Bernie Sanders are not barriers here.

There are other significant differences as well. For one, the vote here is held on a Sunday, so that those who work can vote. As opposed to the United States, over here in France, voter disenfranchisement is not a national pastime. And the media is prohibited from releasing exit poll information prior to the conclusion of voting, so as to not influence the vote while in process.

But those differences, just as in the differences around the prohibitions I mentioned earlier, all derive from the same source: corporate money and influence in the American political system.

And that money and influence far pre-dates Citizens United. The only way that the two-party stranglehold will ever be broken in the United States is if strict measures are implemented in order to level the playing field as it is currently in France. But not only will corporations and politicians alike fight that tooth-and-nail, unfortunately they have decades worth of federal case law on their side.

Witnessing not only the differences but the excitement and enthusiasm here for an election where they have an actual choice and a true chance to make actual change, I am both left hopeful and renewed as to the potential of the political process overall, but more pessimistic than ever that the American process is truly unfixable in its current manifestation. Those who focus on Citizens United fail to see that its only the icing on the cake, the cake being a corrupt system that I doubt can ever be salvaged or repaired.

One thing that I’ve thought about a lot lately is how much Americans like to compare our history and our trajectory to that of France, pointing out so often that the American Revolution and the French Revolution occurred back-to-back and delighting in the fact that much of the Declaration of the Rights of Man was based on the American constitutional documents. But in those comparisons, they fail to recognize that while the French are now on their Fifth Republic, with two empirical interruptions in between, the united States is still working with the original structure. And in light of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s proposal to abandon the Fifth Republic and start anew with a fresh constitution, I think that Americans need to seriously consider a similar path.

quelques réflexions sur la «liberté»

Last summer, I had been in Rennes for a little over a week when I heard something that perked up my ears in terms of its relative unfamiliarity in this town: a family of native English speakers.

I was either heading to or returning from the supermarket, I forget which, when I heard them behind me. Many folks speak English in Rennes, but always with thick French accents, so the sound of obviously American folks made me turn around right away and smile.

It was a family, a tall Black man and two small children, who I realized upon turning around that I recognized from a few days earlier. I looked at them with a smile, and instead of “bonjour”, I said “hello”.

He immediately grinned back. “American?”, he asked me.

“Yes,” I replied. “I’m assuming you are as well.”

We got to talking for a bit. He asked me why I was in Rennes, and I gave him the short version. And then I asked him the same question in return, assuming an answer as casual as my own.

But what he said stopped me in my tracks.

“I moved here for my children, to keep them safe,” he said. “Here the local police do not carry guns. I don’t have to worry about my son being shot in cold blood. And here we are treated with respect, not like criminals.”

I looked down at his children and a lump formed in my throat. Six thousand miles away from home, I briefly reflected on the conditions that Black folks in the United States live under every day, and my sadness quickly turned to rage.

 *    *    *    *    *

In most French municipalities, the local police, or police municipale, do not carry firearms. The federal police, both the police nationale and the gendarmerie nationale, do carry firearms and they make their presence known in every large French city including Rennes, but even then police shootings are very rare. A report by The Guardian last year showed that police in the United States kill more people in a matter of days than some countries do in years.

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Police nationale in Rennes, June 2016

While no official data on the number of police killings per year in France exists, it is estimated that in 2012, only 14 people were killed by police in a country with a population of approximately 66 million people. In that same year in the United States, a country with a population of approximately 314 million people, there were approximately 608 people killed by police.

That’s not to say that racism and police brutality are not significant issues in France. Two months ago, Paris exploded in protests and riots after French police brutally sodomized a Black man and then claimed it was an “accident”. And racial discrimination, especially against Muslims and North Africans, is very much a widespread issue here, although in my personal experience the average white French citizen is in much less denial about the problem than white folks in the United States.

While there are undoubtedly many reasons for the discrepancy, the most obvious being that local police do not carry weapons, one notable factor is in the different standards between the United States and the European Union in terms of what is considered a legal use of deadly force. The national standards in most European countries, including France, are governed by the European Convention on Human Rights, which allows for the use of deadly force only when “absolutely necessary”. This is in stark contrast to the “reasonable belief” standard that governs American police forces, which allows offers to kill with impunity and for the most part get away with it if they can convince those in higher positions that they reasonably believed their lives or the life of a private citizen to be in danger.

 *    *    *    *    *

A few days after my encounter with the American man and his children last summer, a mass shooting took place in a LGBT club in Orlando, Florida. The incident was almost as big of a news story in France as it was in the United States, and as an American I found myself fielding questions for several days after the massacre, mostly from French friends and acquaintances who were in shock and disbelief not only about the incident itself, but how and why Americans were so tolerant and/or supportive of citizens carrying firearms.

“But why?” I was asked in a bar a few nights later, by a college-aged man that I had just met. “Why do you all need your guns? Why is it so important to you?”

As someone who has always straddled a middle ground between the two dominant ideological positions when it comes to gun rights, I tried to explain it to him from a sociological and historical perspective.

I stressed that the United States was a settler-colonial state in which poor European immigrants came over for “free land” only to learn that they had to defend that land at gunpoint. I spoke of those who were removed from that land as it was given to European immigrants, how the indigenous tribes often fought back, and how from an psychic and epigenetic perspective the descendants of those settlers have been metaphorically looking over their shoulder ever since. I explained the immense amount of political power that the NRA wields, and the decades of propaganda linking gun ownership to “American values” as well as the toxic rhetoric that links guns with being a “real man”.

But my point seemed to be lost in translation, and at that moment I realized that what I had said perhaps only made sense from an American perspective. In a moment of frustration and garbled thoughts, which was not helped by the beers I had already consumed, I deferred to the default ideological answer.

“Americans tend to think that owning a gun is a matter of freedom.”

He laughed loudly, staring at me for a moment, trying to figure out if I was serious.

“Freedom?” he repeated in a tone of disbelief. “You all think that carrying a gun around equals freedom? Wow. I’ll tell you how I define freedom, how we define freedom. Freedom is when minorities and oppressed folks can walk around freely without worrying about being shot.”

I just stared at him, at a loss for words. If it had been a chess game, I was just put into checkmate.

“I can’t argue that one,” I said after a moment.

 *    *    *    *    *

It is true that while American ideology stresses ‘freedom’ as a core part of American values, our conception of freedom is quite narrow and much more a reflection of our isolated way of thinking and our lack of critical thinking skills than anything else.

It’s during times like that moment at the bar in which I am reminded that philosophy is mandated in all French high schools (lyceés), and that the average French person has a understanding of basic philosophical concepts that is far beyond the understanding of the average American.

The American idea of freedom mainly revolves around what is known as “negative liberties”, which is only one aspect of a much larger understanding of freedom that Americans often perceive as a dichotomy but the French (as well as most anyone who has studied German idealism, humanism, and/or critical theory) tend to view as two parts that create a whole.

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Isaiah Berlin, who has some strong opinions on freedom…

In short, negative liberty encompasses freedom from; freedom from interference or prohibition against one’s desires or goals. It is the concept of negative liberties combined with the ideology of individualism that results in the attitudes that so many Americans regard as “freedom”, mainly the freedom to do what one wishes despite how it may affect others.

“Positive liberties”, on the other hand, are often defined as freedom to, meaning the freedom to have the ability and opportunity to act upon one’s will and desires, as opposed to simply being free from restraint.

To frame this difference in the scenario I described above, the right to own and carry a gun would be an example of negative liberty, while the right to walk around free from the fear of violence would be an example of positive liberty.

Many have posited that the end game of negative liberty is in true anarchism, where there are no prohibitions on what one wants to accomplish, while the end game of positive liberty is in true communism, where society is engineered and structured so that everyone has what they need to live a healthy and fulfilling life. I think that such a framing is useful on one hand, but also creates a false dichotomy that does not take into account how and why the two concepts can and do interlink in order to create a society that is balanced in its freedoms and can still serve all.

However, the idea that so much of what is considered to be positive liberty is “communism” is a common feature in the American ideology and discourse around freedom. It is why things that the French consider crucial to a free society, such as universal healthcare and a strong social safety net and the right to walk around without the fear of being shot, are so often derided by Americans as “communism” or “socialism”.

And it is that narrow ideology, absent from critical thinking, that is leading to the current decay and crumbling of American society. It is that narrow ideology which is why American families like the one I met last summer are moving to France as a matter of safety.

le café, la place, et des anomalies

I’m a person in need of routines. As someone who’s lived in many different places, the specifics of any given routine have changed many times, but overall it has always fit the same basic pattern. Go to sleep between 2 and 3 in the morning, wake up between 10 and 11, and then go out and find coffee and try to write.

In Portland, such a routine took me to the nearest Starbucks around noon each day. This was not so much due to “preference” as much as proximity and the fact that the only other coffee shop close by, a locally-owned place that catered to a wealthy clientele, would first subtly and then more overtly try to get me to either leave or buy another cup after an hour or so, regardless of whether or not I had finished the cup in front of me or not. Such behavior and policies are typical in most American service establishments, whether coffee shops or restaurants. The priority is always to serve as many people as possible and bring in as much profit as possible, which conflicts with someone like me who prefers to sit for at least a few hours and work while eating or drinking. I have found over time that Starbucks is much less pushy than most locally-owned establishments, but a subtle energetic pressure for me to leave after a while is always there nonetheless. And it is that pressure that often prevents me from being able to relax enough to write.

In France, however, the cultural tendency is the complete opposite.

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The view from where I get my early afternoon coffee in Rennes.

In France, one can order nothing more than a bottle of water and sit for as long as they like. Not only will you not be encouraged to move, but if anything you are encouraged to stay. Nobody will bring you the check unless and until you make it obvious that you are ready to leave. In some cases, especially when it comes to American tourists, they will deliberately not bring you the check even if you *do* make it clear that you want to leave, if the server deems that you are rushing. Their view is that nobody needs to be in such a rush. Food is for enjoying, not for wolfing down and then splitting. And while the local businesses are obviously operating on a for-profit basis, the cultural tendencies and beliefs of the French people take precedence over the need to squeeze ever potential ounce of profit out of potential customers.

And so every day for the past few weeks, at some point usually between 11 and noon, I get on my bike, ride the two kilometers or so to Place Saint-Anne in Rennes’ centre-ville, order a grande café crème, and sit for the next several hours, writing and checking email and people-watching. My routine is already ingrained enough where I am seen as a regular at the coffee shop I frequent the most, the servers already know in advance when I’m about to ask for the bathroom key, and other folks who frequent the area on a daily basis have begun to nod at me in recognition and say hello when they see me.

I’m actually sitting there right now as I am writing this piece.

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Today it was 2,35€

The only real deviation from the otherwise continuous nature of this routine is the fact that my coffee seems to be a different price every day, despite the fact that I always order the same thing. Depending on the day and the employee, my grande café crème costs either 1,65€, 2,35€, or once in a while 2,60€. I cannot account for this discrepancy, especially considering that the prices of everything they serve is posted on the wall as required by law in every retail establishment.

But I also don’t point it out or question it to the employees for many reasons. Considering that the same coffee in Portland cost significantly more, I’m coming out ahead no matter what. And especially considering that my small purchase allows me to sit unbothered for as long as I like, I consider the constantly shifting price of my coffee to be not only irrelevant, but rather amusing. I’m now at a point where I try to predict beforehand what the price will be, but unlike the tendencies in my own actions, there seems to be no pattern to it at all.

Even visibly poor and/or homeless people are afforded the same space and dignity that I am. There is an elderly, visibly poor man who frequents the same coffee shop I do, not daily but at least two or three times a week. He, too, buys only one coffee and sits for several hours, reading the complimentary copy of Ouest-France that the servers leave on the counter every day. Nobody bothers him and nobody, neither employee or customer, gives him dirty looks or tries to sit as far away from him as possible, as is so typical in the United States. He is treated just like any other customer.

Because he is just like any other customer. And the fact that I’m shocked by his being treated with dignity demonstrates to me how much as an American I have normalized the constant dehumanization of folks like him, despite consistently speaking out against it for many years now. It shouldn’t be shocking to me that he is treated like any other customer, but it is, and that speaks volumes to me about the level of dysfunction in American society.

But I try to shake that shock and anger off as it comes up, for now just grateful that both him and I have a place where we can sit and just relax, unbothered and free to be as we are.

 

trouver une chambre

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My landlady’s backyard garden in Rennes, which she takes very seriously.

While it varies somewhat by geographical region as well as from urban to rural, the general standard for finding a place to live as a renter in the United States is similar wherever one may try. Verifiable employment or other source of income, three times the rent in income proven on paper, a clean rental record, a criminal background check, a security deposit, and often the last month’s rent paid in advance at the same time that the first month’s rent is due. Add to that other additional charges such as “pet rent” and “nonrefundable cleaning fees”, and its easy to see rather quickly why poor folks have such a hard time finding a place to live despite being fully employed.

While such standards are not always as rigidly enforced in less desirable areas and neighborhoods, for those who live in “up-and-coming” or newly gentrified areas, the inability to meet these standards has created an entire new class of homeless people, folks who work, often have good credit and good rental histories, often are formerly middle-class, but have now been relegated to outsider status on account of increasingly competitive and predatory rental markets.

In the past decade, I have moved no less than ten times. And every single time, meeting these standards has caused an incredible amount of stress and agony, especially as a self-employed person who often cannot prove my income to the satisfaction of landlords and even more so to rental agencies, which tend to be even more strict. Further adding to those complications was my increasing public visibility as a homelessness activist while living in Eugene, Oregon, which eventually became a source of blacklisting when it came to finding a place to live. Even if I fulfilled all the requirements of the landlord, many made it bluntly clear to me that they did not want to rent to me because they did not want me having “those people” around the house all the time. And it was that which became one of the primary reasons why I left Eugene for Portland, after living for a year in a mold-infested apartment and unable to find anywhere else due to the combination of their prejudice and my reputation.

In Portland, I was lucky enough to qualify for and be accepted as a tenant in a federally subsidized building that is restricted to low-income tenants, using a federal formula that calculates the local area medium income and only accepts tenants who make less than 60% of that figure. Many of the other standard requirements for renting an apartment are also relaxed under their policies – one only needs to show one-and-a-half times the rent in income on paper, they are more reasonable with folks who have poor credit, the security deposit is less than a month’s rent, and last month’s rent in advance is not required. These relaxed standards were the only reason I was able to move to Portland in the first place. And while I am grateful that I have a decent place to live in a nice neighborhood, the reality is that if I ever wanted to leave, I would have to leave the city altogether, as there is absolutely nowhere in the city limits where I would both be able to meet the rental requirements and afford the rent itself. I’m grateful, especially considering the long waiting lists for housing like mine, but I’m also stuck.

*   *   *   *   *

When I first came to France last spring, the last thing I was thinking about was living there. But then I saw ads like this:

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My reaction was that of utter shock. I had always heard and assumed without investigating that living in a country like France was just as expensive if not more than living in the United States. And if I wanted to live in Paris, there would be truth to that. But from an American perspective, the rents in Rennes were cheap as dirt. Fair market rate for a studio here was less than half of what I was paying for a similarly sized federally subsidized apartment back in Portland.

The rental prices were only one of many factors that drew me to come back. My health was the other primary factor, which I will write about more in depth in the future. But after a few days, every time I would walk past a real estate office, of which there seems to be one on every block, I would stand there and stare with my mouth open, over and over again, and few weeks of repeating this ritual a daily basis I was still shocked every time I did it.

“Well, why don’t you just move to France?” everyone said to me.

I wanted to, but it’s not that easy. The French government doesn’t just let Americans come over here and stay permanently, especially not low-income, disabled Americans like myself. The ability to gain permanent residency status in France as a foreigner depends mainly on one’s financial affluence and/or their ability to find gainful employment here. When I decided last fall that I needed to return, I first explored the possibility of obtaining a long-stay visa, but quickly realized that for a few different reasons I would not be able to meet the requirements (I will also elaborate on this in a future post). So as it currently stands, without a long-term visa I’m bound by the the Schengen area regulations, which mandate that I can only spend 90 days in the Schengen zone and then spending 90 days out of the zone before I can legally re-enter.

And this complicated the housing issue, because as affordable as the rents are here in Rennes, rental agencies do not want to rent a studio to someone for only three months. While the rental requirements through an agency are not as stringent as they are in the United States, they still usually require a year-long lease. And most websites that cater to short-term rentals are geared towards tourists and rent either by the day or by the week at highly inflated prices compared to long-term monthly rentals.

After combing the internet for a few weeks without much luck, I finally found a lead on a short-term rental through a website called Roomlala, which focuses on short-term rentals and work-trades but not so much for tourists. I emailed the landlady through the website, and she replied positively and told me that the room was still available and asked me to call her.

My French is decent when I’m reading or writing it, but I have a very hard time comprehending spoken French, especially when I can’t see the person’s facial expressions. I explained this to her through messaging, but she told me that it didn’t matter and to call her anyway. I agreed, realizing that this was probably her way of confirming that I was who I said I was as opposed to actually relaying information. Luckily, Rhyd was staying at my place in Portland while this was all occurring, and as his French is better than mine I had him assist with the call.

What transpired was a rather hilarious ten minutes in which neither side really understood much of what the other was saying, but as opposed to being annoyed or frustrated, it was clear that she found it quite amusing. By the end of the call, she told me that the place was mine and she looked forward to my arrival.

I should note at this point that this occurred in the first week of February, and I wasn’t due to arrive in Rennes until March 24th. The idea that she would hold the room for six weeks without any sort of compensation seemed unlikely to me, but I was desperate to secure it, so after the call was over I messaged her and asked her how much she wanted to hold it. She replied to me immediately, telling me that it was not necessary. Again making assumptions based on my experiences in the United States, I then asked her how she wanted me to send her the first month’s rent… did she want me to Paypal her or send an international money order? She again told me that it wasn’t necessary, and that I could just pay her when I arrived.

Other than the verification needed to join Roomlala, which consisted of a scan of my passport and verifying my phone number through a text code, no other information was asked from me. No credit check, no proof of income, nothing. She was perfectly willing to rent a room for three months to someone who was living 6,000 miles away based on a passport photo and a ten minute phone call in which neither side really understood the other. And despite making clear to me that she spoke absolutely no English, the language barrier also did not seem of any concern to her.

*   *   *   *   *

Six weeks later, on March 25th right on schedule, I arrived at my new place. I rang the doorbell and an an smiling older woman answered the door giving me a kiss on each cheek in the customary French style.

Bonjour! Ça va?” she asked me, as though we were already old friends.

Oui, ça va,” I answered, and immediately felt at home.

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Closing shutters, the best thing ever.

 

She took me upstairs where my room was located, and showed me in detail how the shutters worked, realizing correctly that as an American I had no idea how to operate such a sensible device. After showing me around the rest of the house and giving me a tour of her backyard garden, she brought me into the living room where she had a notebook. She then asked me to write down my name, American address, phone number, and occupation. I did so, assuming it was for a lease, and consulted Google Translate as I didn’t know the right word.

Est-ce pour le bail?” I asked.

She shook her head and laughed. I didn’t quite understand everything she said, but she made it clear that a lease was not necessary and I’m pretty sure she said she needed the information for tax purposes. I then paid her the pro-rated rent for the rest of that month, and she handed me the keys. And that was that. Not only did I have a place to live, I could already tell that I had a landlady that would be a second mother.

*   *   *   *   *

Alley? Bonjour, Alley!“, I heard her say as she came up the stairs.

It was a few days later, and already I was experiencing that strange timeless feeling where it’s as though one has always existed in a situation. It did not feel like “my new place” at all, it felt quite like home.

I met her at the top of the stairs. “Bonjour, ça va?

She said something quickly that I did not catch, and then handed me a plate wrapped in foil. “Tu es trop mince,” she then said, patting my stomach as I unwrapped the foil to find a beautiful looking piece of meat.

Merci!” I said with a smile, and kissed her on the cheek.

*   *   *   *   *

A few days after that, I was telling this story to an American friend who had spent time living in southern France in the late ’90s.

“Is this typical, or did I just luck out?” I asked her.

“Its not as common as it used to be, and its not the case in places like Paris, but every place I ever rented in Provence it was the same deal,” she said to me. “Its just a different way of life. Many landlords, especially older folks, tend to trust their instinct over the power of a signed contract. If anything, some find the idea of such formalities insulting.”

“A different way of life is putting it lightly,” I replied, remembering at that moment that I had forgotten to eat the piece of brioche that my landlady had brought me that morning.

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Photo by Frédéric Bisson/Wikimedia Commons

une visite chez le docteur

As an low-income American, I’m one of the “lucky ones” in that not only do I have health insurance, I had it prior to the Affordable Care Act. I unexpectedly ended up with Medicaid in 2010 via a lottery system while living in the state of Oregon. After not having health insurance for a few years at that point and struggling with untreated chronic illnesses, I was more grateful that you could imagine.

And yet, due to the system being drastically underfunded, over the years I have learned the hard way more than once that having health insurance is not the same thing as having access to health care. When I moved to Portland in 2014, I found out that due to the large influx of new Medicaid patients after the passing of the ACA, that there were no MDs available anywhere in the city of Portland who were accepting Medicaid patients under the plan I was assigned to. Which means that while all my costs are still covered, any medical problem requiring a physician means that I have to go to an urgent care center or the emergency room.

Last month, five days before I was set to fly out to France for three months, I woke up in the middle of the night with severe stomach pains. I quickly reviewed my activities over the past few days in my head, which admittedly involved eating questionable food out of the fridge and accidentally swallowing water while I was in a public hot tub, and figured that I either had food poisoning or a bacterial bug from the hot tub water. I assumed that it would fade the next day, as it always has in the past, but two days later the pain had worsened and so I reluctantly dragged myself to urgent care, assuming that I’d be out a few hours later with a dose of antibiotics.

The urgent care center I went to in Portland is not a walk-in center – it requires one to make an appointment online. I foolishly assumed that making an appointment meant that I would be seen at the time that the appointment was for, especially as the confirmation email I received stressed that I needed to be there fifteen minutes early. So I made an appointment for 5pm, got there at 4:45, and proceeded to then wait two hours before I was even seen by the triage nurse.

And the triage nurse made it clear that it would not be a quick in and out. “Oh no,” she said, when I suggested that I just needed antibiotics. “All patients with stomach pains are re-routed to the ER.”

My heart sank as my anxiety spiked, internalizing both the realization that I would likely be there all night as well as the realization that there was a chance that it was actually something more serious. And my anxiety spiked further a few minutes later, after she took my blood pressure and temperature, when she opened up her drawer, tied a band around my upper arm, and told me to make a fist.

“Wait, what for?” I asked.

“I’m inserting an IV,” she answered.

img_4313“But why?” I asked, my heart pounding. To say that I’m not good with needles is an understatement. As someone with anemia and tiny veins, any puncture tends to cause me grief and complications.

“Its standard procedure,” she said. “They will probably need to give you fluids.”

“But can’t we wait until we know they need to do that first?”

“No,” she answered, and pricked my vein and inserted the catheter. She took some blood, capped the ends, and then sent me back to the waiting room, where I sat for another hour before the doctor came out.

The doctor ordered a CT scan, which I waited another hour for. The CT scan revealed something abnormal in my uterus, which was the last thing in the world that I wanted to hear five days before I was set to leave the country. The doctor then ordered a pelvic and vaginal ultrasound, which I waited another two hours for, as the ultrasound tech had left for the night and they needed to wait for the person on call to arrive.

Fast forward to a little past one in the morning, over eight hours after I had arrived. While I still had pains in my lower abdomen, at that point the IV in my arm was far more painful. Not only was it increasingly painful, but other than the initial blood draw and an injection of iodine contrast for the CT scan, they had yet to actually use it. Concerned about the pain, I sought out a nurse but at that moment the doctor came in.

“You had an ovarian cyst that burst,” he said to me.

Whaaaaaaaaa??? I thought to myself. “What does that mean?” I asked him.

“If the ovary was contorted, it would mean that you would need surgery. But in this case you are lucky and all looks fine. You’ll be in pain for a few more days, and I recommend a follow-up with a gynecologist.”

“How urgent is the follow-up?” I asked. “I’m leaving the country on Friday for three months.”

He looked down at my chart for a moment, then looked back up at me. “Honestly, with your insurance it may take you three months to get an appointment as it is. Will you have any kind of insurance over there?”

“I have emergency coverage,” I replied, and he seemed satisfied. A few minutes later, the nurse came in to remove the IV.

“Is it supposed to hurt like this?” I asked as she pulled it out. “Should I worry about anything?”

“Oh no, you’ll be fine,” she said dismissively.

*   *   *   *   *

I was discharged just past two in the morning, over nine hours after I had first come for my “appointment”. Over the next few days, the pains in my abdomen ceased as promised, but the spot on my arm where the IV had been started turning black and blue and aching in a way that I couldn’t brush off. By the time I was set to get on the plane, no trace of the abdominal pain remained, but my arm was starting to worry me.

I ignored it throughout the flight and for the first few days in France, but on the fourth night the combination of my pain and the anxiety around the possibility of complications got the better of me and I reluctantly turned to Google in search of a doctor, terrified of what it would cost me as a non-citizen.

I quickly went from terrified to shocked and angry, not at the French system but at the American system.

*   *   *   *   *

To talk about “socialized health care” in itself without qualifiers is a bit disingenuous, as different systems operate in very different ways. And when Americans talk about socialized health care, more often than not derisively, not only are they speaking out of utter ignorance in the big picture, but the vast majority of the time they are clueless as to the distinctions between different systems. Their view on socialized health care is usually based on a personal anecdote they heard from a friend or acquaintance about waiting times in the U.K. or Canada. They will then go on about how the American system is better because of “choice” and the lack of waiting lists, completely ignoring the fact that an estimated 45,000 Americans die ever year due to lack of access to health care, having absolutely no “choice” in the matter at all.

The NHS in the United Kingdom is one form of socialized health care, generally known as the “Beveridge Model” as a tribute to the social reformer who designed the system. Under this single-payer system, most clinics and hospitals are owned by the government, the entire system is paid for by the government through taxation, and every permanent resident of the UK has access to the system free of charge. As both payer and provider, the government has control over pricing and treatments, which other than waiting lists tends to be the primary complaint of Americans who criticize this system. And while it isn’t perfect, polls and surveys regularly show that a majority of UK citizens approve of and are satisfied with their health care system. The Beveridge model has been replicated in many other countries, including Spain, Cuba, New Zealand, and Hong Kong.

Canada’s system is similar to the Beveridge model, except that providers are private entities, not government employees, and most hospitals and clinics are privately owned. While still providing much better coverage and care to its citizens overall than the American system, the Canadian system is known for long waiting lists for certain procedures in many areas, and more often than not it is stories of long waits in Canada that Americans hear of and use as an excuse to dismiss all forms of socialized health care as “un-American”.

The French system on the other hand, works on a different model than either the British or Canadian systems, known as the “Bismarck model” after conservative German chancellor Otto von Bismarck who pioneered the model in Germany in the late 1800s. The Bismarck model differs from the Beveridge model in that it uses an insurance model and doctors and hospitals are are usually private. The Bismarck system uses a multi-payer model – all permanent residents receive insurance from the state, which covers a majority of any given procedure, which can then be supplemented by secondary private insurance that covers the rest. But unlike private insurance in the United States, insurance companies under the Bismarck model are mandated to be non-profit. The Bismarck model is currently used throughout much of Europe – not only in France, but in Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. The Bismarck model is also used in Japan. A report put out by the WHO in the year 2000 ranked the French system as the overall best health care system in the world.

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I knew all of this going in, but what I didn’t know was how accessible the system was to non-residents. It took me only a moment on Google to learn that for most doctors who work within the French social security system, an appointment is only 23€ regardless of one’s residency status. For permanent residents, their social security covers 70% of that fee, and if they have additional insurance (mutuelle) it covers the rest. But as an American, who in the past has paid $50 copays with private insurance to see a general practitioner, the fact that I had no insurance and would have to pay the full 23€ did not bother me in the least.

And waiting lists? Nope. A few minutes on Doctolib and I found a physician a few kilometers away from where I was staying, who had appointments available the next day. The website even let me know which doctors spoke other languages. I filled in my info and made an appointment for the next morning.

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The office was simple and sparce. A small waiting room with a few chairs and a table from IKEA that had a few magazines on it. No television, no receptionist, no nurse, no billing specialist. From what I can tell, the medical billing industry, which is a 6.3 billion dollar industry in the United States, is non-existent in France. I wanted for only five minutes before the door opened, the doctor said goodbye to his previous patient, and waved me in.

His English was limited, as is my French, but between the words we knew and some help from Google Translate, we managed just fine. He asked me about the experience that led to my bruised arm, giving me a rather shocked look when I told him about the unnecessary IV in my arm for eight hours, and after a few minutes of poking at it told me that he thought it would be okay, that he was going to prescribe me a cream to speed the healing, and that they should have used a child-sized catheter. He then walked over to his desk, steps away from his examination chair, where his computer and credit card machine was. He printed me out a prescription form for the cream, filled out a receipt for the visit by hand, explained to me where the nearest pharmacy was, and rung up my card. I was in and out in less than fifteen minutes.

 I then walked over to the pharmacy. Similarly to the doctor’s office, it was obvious that there were no cashiers, no assistants, only the pharmacist herself. I handed her the slip, again bracing for the price, and asked what turned out to be a foolish question.

Quand devrais-je revenir?” (When should I come back?)

The pharmacist looked at me very strangely. “Attendez un moment, s’il vous plaît,” she said, and walked over to a drawer. She opened it, pulled out a tube, and walked back to the register. I had my prescription in less than fifteen seconds, as opposed to the standard hour or two that one waits in the United States.

Carte vitale?” she said, asking me for my social security card.

Non, je ne suis pas citoyen,” I answered. She typed something into her computer, took my form from the doctor, and stamped it. I reached for the 50€ bill in my pocket, hoping it was enough.

“2,61€”, she said. I thought I misheard her at first. I repeated the price back to her and she nodded in agreement. I handed her a 5€ bill and hoped she wouldn’t notice my visible shaking as she handed me the change.

After I left the pharmacy, I pulled out my phone and Googled the name of the medication, and then proceeded to nearly shit my pants when I saw that in the United States, the price of the cream without insurance was nearly $2500.00.

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“Yeah, but they pay outrageous taxes over there…”

Later that day, when I posted a much shorter version of this story on Facebook, the pushback from some conservative-minded folks was fast and fierce. It’s a claim that I’ve heard many times before, and it simply does not stand up to facts.

Current American tax brackets:

americantaxrates

Current French tax brackets:

frenchtaxrates

2013 French tax brackets (included because it shows higher incomes)

frenchtaxrates2013

While the tax rates in France are higher for the upper brackets, they are significantly lower for lower-income folks. And when you factor in what Americans pay for health insurance, and the costs that they so often still incur despite having health insurance, paying slightly more for the kind of system that the French have seems quite sensible. And not only do those slightly higher taxes provide universal health care coverage, it also provides generous maternity leave and free university education among other things.

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One thing that I first noticed last summer, and I’m noticing again here now in France in the midst of the presidential elections, is that health care in France is not a political wedge issue. Unlike in the United States, where health care has been a dividing issue for decades now, its not even mentioned in the rhetoric around the French elections. French citizens, whether left or right, pretty much all support universal health care, as do the politicians that represent them. Nowhere, not even amongst the far-right, have I heard any of the kind of rhetoric that’s commonplace in the United States. The idea that health care should be a right that’s granted to all citizens regardless of income level is not the least bit controversial here, nor is it controversial in the vast majority of the developed world. Pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to here about health care, regardless of their political leanings, are completely baffled as to why Americans do not support universal health care.

Only in the United States does a significant portion of citizens and politicians alike think that its acceptable that thousands of people suffer and die due to the lack of ability to afford and access health care. And only in the United States does a significant portion of the population tie that belief to the idea of “freedom” and national pride.

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Further Information on the French health care system:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1447687/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/internationallivingcom/healthcare-in-france-expats_b_11830382.html

http://www.slate.com/articles/business/dispatches_from_the_welfare_state/2014/01/french_socialized_medicine_vs_u_s_health_care_having_a_baby_in_paris_is.html

http://www.expatica.com/fr/healthcare/french-healthcare-france-health-care-system_101166.html

http://about-france.com/health-care.htm