Monday, May 22, 2017

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Exciting News!

The "An American in France" blog is moving to its own site for better functionality (and to ensure I don't lose my content at some future point)!

The new site is: An American in France Blog

There is still work to be done - improving categories, choosing better photos for past blogs, etc; however, I hope that you'll like the new blog functionality!

It will be easier to:

  • Contact me directly (if you wish)
  • Leave comments that include your own website address
  • Search for specific content
  • Receive an e-mail when a new blog is posted
Blogs Coming Soon:
  • Abroad Editions:
    • A tour of Brussels
    • A day in Bruges
    • And a trip to China!
  • French Sites:
    • Abbey of St Savin
    • Carcassonne
  • Cultural Blog:
    • Dressing more French
I look forward to seeing you all on the new site soon!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Q&A: Do the French Ever Work/Do They Hate Work/Are They Lazy? (Given the 35 Hour Week, Holidays, Vacation . . .)

I'm growing very fond of dictating blogs and editing the format after!  The voice-to-text isn't great, but it's better than I expected.  On to the topic though:

Due to the legislation on the 35-hour work week in France (and vacation time), I am frequently asked if the French dislike working, are lazy or some variation of this topic.  So, I'm going to break down the differences between France and the US:
  • 35-hour vs 40-hour work week: The 35-hour work week is largely a myth.  The 35-hour work week simply means that some overtime must be paid after 35 hours (or RTT banked).
    • The overtime rate is .25 or those hours can be banked as additional vacation time (aka RTT).
    • While some companies do give their employees a half day off during the week to accommodate the 35-hour work week, many employees are working more than 35 hours.
  • Overtime: This one works differently here.
    • As illustrated above, you can pay your employees OR give them more time off later.
    • This "time off" deal may be why an employee can effectively work 6 days per week in high season and 4 days per week in low season without OT actually being paid.  Frankly, I don't fully understand the rules on OT.
  • Managers (Salaried Employees): There is no 35-hour work week for salaried employees.  
    • At my company, most of the managers seem to work about an average of 9 hours per day. The average working week for a cadre employee in France overall is 44 hours.
    • HOWEVER, unlike in the US where there is effectively no compensation for OT (hope you accounted for it your salary requirements), we get 9 RTT days in France.  This is effectively extra vacation to offset the fact that we are frequently working long hours.
    • I actually work more hours as a salaried employee in France than I ever did in the US.  I've had positions where a 9-10 hour day during close was common (12 hours in a crisis situation); however, this is the first position I've ever held where a 10-12 hour day was normal basically EVERY day.
  • Efficiency: There is the perception that the French are so protective of their labor laws because they are lazy or they are unproductive as a result.
    • In fact, when measuring efficiency by gross domestic output, the French are slightly less efficient than the Americans, but more efficient than the Germans or British. 
    • The 35-hour work week was originally instituted to create more jobs.  In reality, the French simply worked harder to get their work done in fewer hours.  French efficiency went up, but the law wasn't effective at creating many new jobs.
  • (Lots of) Vacation Time: This one is not a myth.  We do get 30 days of vacation in France.  
    • The catch is that this includes 5 Saturdays, so it's really 5 weeks of vacation.  
    • In addition, if you're a manager (or work over 35 hours), you get RTT days/hours.
      • Realistically, the RTT days might be the only ones where you get to choose the date.  Our plant shuts down for four weeks in August and one week in December, so the majority of employees are effectively forced to use their full vacation allotment during this time.
      • If you don't like traveling at the same time as the rest of the country (and when it's more expensive), tough luck in France!
  • (Lots of) Public Holidays: This is sort of a myth.  The French have 11 public holidays; however, if they fall on a weekend they are lost.  
    • Out of the next four years, the French will have 9 holidays in two years and 10 holidays in the other two years.  This compares with 8 holidays and 2 floating holidays for our US employees (10 total).  So, we actually have fewer paid holidays in several years.  
    • Unfortunately, HALF of them fall between the end of March and early June (depending on when Easter is), which can generate comments in the US, like, "When are the French not out for a holiday?"  I can tell you when - basically the rest of the year.
  • The bridge: There is one other difference that also contributes to the perception that we're always out for a holiday - the bridge.  It is common to be closed on Monday or Friday to "bridge" to a holiday on Tuesday or Thursday.
    • This is not paid as holiday time though.  We take vacation pay or RTT time to cover these days.
    • While there is only one day that falls under this in 2017, in 2018 there are six!  In fact, two of the holidays fall on Tuesday and Thursday in the same week, so might as well bridge the whole week and take it off! (At least, that's my plan)  In France, they'd refer to this as an "employees' year" and the years when many holidays are on weekends is a "management year."
    • Realistically, many employees do this in the US as well (with vacation).  The difference is that, in France, everyone has the opportunity to "bridge" since the business is closed (no need to worry about staffing an area).  The downside is that you're effectively forced (again) to take your paid time off at set times, whether you want to or not.
In summary, the French do work less than Americans on average (The OECD showed an average of ~1,500 hours per year vs. ~1,700 hours per year).  Largely, this is because MOST of the French really do embrace the idea that you work so that you can live, you don't live so that you can work.
At the same time, this model actually has some benefits for the employer too.  For example, you know exactly when the majority of your employees will be on vacation.  There's no need for a seniority system - everyone gets the highly-desirable summer and holiday vacation time.  This also means less disruption the rest of the year because there is limited vacation time being taken at other times.  Additionally, you can plan for major maintenance or installing new equipment during the vacation periods without impacting production (which is already shutdown).

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Biarritz and the Hotel Star System in France

The second half of this post comes to you via speech-to-text on my phone with later editing.  We'll see how it goes!  The post will be a little heavy on photos and less text as well.

Hotel Star Ratings in France
I don't know why I assumed that there was some global standard for hotel star ratings, but I had naively assumed that to be true.  My hotel seemed very reasonably priced for a 4* hotel, especially one located right in the center of town.
On the rock out in the ocean stands the Virgin of the Rock . . . guess you'll have to see it for yourself!

When I arrived, the hotel was nice, but it wasn't clear why it was "four star" as it seemed pretty dated.  Granted, the room and bathroom were a veritable mansion compared to many that I've stayed in, but that was about the biggest difference.  In fact, some of the lower rated places had seemed objectively nicer - more recently updated anyway.

I finally became curious about what the stars mean - there are specific plaques in France for the star rating, which is what finally made me wonder if there was actually a global standard (there's not).  The French system is largely based on the SIZE of the room and reception area!  

Who says that size doesn't count?
A monument to the French Resistance in WWII
Basically:
  • A one-star hotel must have rooms that are 9 square meters (~97 sq ft), which cannot include the bathroom space.  An en suite bathroom is not necessary.  There must also be a reception area of at least 20 square meters (~215 sq ft).
  • A two-star hotel can have the same size room, but must have a reception area of at least 50 square meters (~538 sq ft), the reception must be open at least 10 hours and the staff must speak a 2nd European language
    • Ok, so it isn't ALL size.  Here, you at least have the addition of a little convenience with the opening hours and language.
  • A three-star hotel has rooms of at least 13.5 square meters (~145 sq ft), although this can include the bathroom.  The reception requirements and language are the same as a 2*.
    • Hypothetically, you're getting more space in your room here.  For myself, I wouldn't pay more just for a larger hotel room . . . so 2* & 3* are equal for me.
  • A four-star hotel must have rooms of at least 16 square meters (~172 sq ft).  If the hotel has more than 30 rooms, reception must be open 24 hours.
    • So . . . my four star hotel is basically just bigger with a perpetually open front desk
  • A five-star hotel must have rooms of at least 24 square meters (~258 sq ft).  In addition to the requirements for a 4* hotel, the staff must speak English and a second foreign language.  There must also be valet parking, room service, a concierge, air conditioning, etc.
    • Realistically, this is the first classification where there are several amenities required - keep in mind though, nothing in the list says that the place wasn't last updated in the 1970s!
    • Honestly, my hotel has most of these.  The staff are multilingual (we're near Spain), there's room service, air conditioning, activity info and discounts, plus private parking (although, no valet).
  • There is also a Palace designation, which covers only 8 locations currently.  It's basically 5*, but with high-end extras, like a Michelin-rated restaurant, fancy spa, etc. There are only four outside of Paris and I can see one of them out my window in Biarritz!
Of course, this is based on what I've read on a few sites online.  A vague mention of a system for addressing complaints, sustainability and handicap access are also listed, but I've found no English-language sites that clarify what these other requirements are at the different star levels.

Having said all of that, I'm largely happy with my hotel, outside of the fact that the bed is far too hard, which was the case in my German 4* hotel as well - maybe Europeans just like harder beds in general?  And the location is incredible!  I'm right in the center of the town and it is convenient to walk back to my hotel to use a decent toilet, drop off a purchase, etc.

Biarritz
When I traveled here before, it was towards the end of my project and I was crazy busy . . . so much, in fact, that I never posted about my visit there!  The photos above are actually from that trip, when the weather did the exact same thing as this time - sunny to start, then a sudden storm moved in and RAIN, RAIN, RAIN.

I mean, the beach looks appealing here in the first photo from 2016, but so much more appealing in the second!
Biarritz is an interesting town and, even though I liked it the first time, I liked it even more the second time around.  It isn't just your typical beach town, there's quite a history. The area was originally a whaling town, but became known for the healing power of its waters.  It really rose to prominence when the Napoleon III built a house for his wife, Eugenie, here.  The same house still stands and is the hotel above with "palace" status.  There is even a church for Saint Eugenie.
After a period where Biarritz was popular with European royalty, the town seems to have been largely abandoned by the wealthy, who flock to the Mediterranean now.  The upside is a lovely town with beautiful beaches, which is rather affordable to visit.
While the beach above is mostly empty, if you plan to visit ARRIVE EARLY or have a hotel with parking.  When I arrived late at night, my hotel's private lot was basically full.  I drive a subcompact, so I was able to squeeze into a spot right by the gate.  During the midday, it was easy, but not for people without hotel parking!  "Complet" means full and this is for the paid parking.
My favorite thing about Biarritz are the various paths along the coastline.  It has both a flat boardwalk and winding, climbing paths to the tops of the rocky sections.  They've even made bridges out to giant rocks so you can look back on a view of the city.
To the upper right, you can just make out people on the top platform.  I love that the stairway up there is hidden by trees, like a secret passage!
The view from the rock, including St Eugenie

If you're unlucky enough to be there when it rains, like me, the aquarium seems popular with kids and they have seals and sharks, but I think that I'm just not interested in them really.  On the other hand, the City of the Ocean (cité de l'océan) was interesting.  There was a section to learn about the historical development of the ocean, about the polar oceans and about temperate oceans.  All were different types of interactive exhibits.  They had one section with giant heads and a projected overlay so the head talked.  The screen above displayed what was being discussed, such as the bermuda triangle and what they believe really happens there.

One great thing about living in France is the easy access to so many places and countries.  I've decided that I'm going to try to see as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as I can in my lifetime and I certainly have easy access here!  So far, I've seen 32, parts of 2 more and have 16 that I am scheduled to see (largely in China) out of more than 1,000!  So, I have my work cut out for me!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Hiatus

The blog is on a brief hiatus!  I had a repetitive stress injury to my wrist (De Quervain's tenosynovitis), then a trauma to the same wrist almost two years ago.  It largely healed up and it is fine for normal functioning; however, all three times that my normal working schedule has been over 10 hours per day (and often closer to 12 hours), my wrist has been painful.

This time, the usual rest and stretching doesn't seem to be helping (possibly because the endless long working days continue), so I'm at least going to take a break at home.

I will try to use voice-to-text and only edit manually in order to make a post this weekend.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Making My Own Chocolate, SNCF Weekend Card & Finding Good Eats in Paris

My 100th post has me looking back a little and a year later I'm not traveling EVERY weekend, so I had a rural French Saturday.  We started with a lovely lunch on Saturday, then we headed off to make our own chocolate!  L’américaine is moving back to the US soon, so during the few weekends that aren't holiday weekends, we're finding fun things to do . . . and YV was able to arrange this for us through a former employer.

That is one serious Chèvre Chaud salad!
The finished product


SNCF Weekend Card Tip: I've recently learned that I cost myself extra money on trains by not looking into the discount cards earlier!  I noticed ads for the weekend card, but figured that I had to travel much more frequently by train for it to make sense.  Nope.  The card is 75 Euro per year, can be used for a companion also and offers 10% off the cheapest fare class and 25% off others, plus special discounts.  I saved over 30 Euro with my first use and it will clearly MORE than pay for itself over the course of a year.

I should have bought one earlier!  It actually would have paid for itself just with my trip to CDG for the Philippines and China.  Because I'd already purchased China (and my business trip tickets), I activated the card starting in June . . . but again, with two unexpected trips to Paris now, it would have paid for itself a second time!


Bottom line: if I'd bought the card when I first arrived (or better, my last trip here), it would have paid for itself 2-3 times over.  Don't be like me - get a weekend card early!


Paris

It's a little entertaining that living in France means Americans think you're an expert on Paris now.  I've spent a total of 3 days there since I moved, so I don't know have any insider knowledge really!  What I do have are French people who I can ask!  My goal was to visit "lesser known" places!

The primary tip I received was that all of the good restaurants really need reservations, so I booked one for both lunch and dinner.  Since the worst French food I've had has pretty much all been in Paris, I had high hopes that hunting down certain places and having a spot reserved would change my luck there.


We started at a traditional crêperie, where the exterior didn't look very impressive, but the food was fabulous!  Highly recommend the Pot o'Lait if you're looking for delicious crepes or galettes.  For those not familiar with the difference, a galette is usually savory and is made with a buckwheat "shell" instead of flour.

After we left, we walked by the funniest thing that I saw that day - the "original" French tacos.  They had ingredients, like chèvre, and looked more like a panini!  It's a little funny to see the term "taco" used in this way - I mean, calling it a taco doesn't make it a taco!
This is one of those times when I could load up on the photos, so for more photos, my FB page is the best place to check! Link: American in France FB  The next stop was nearby - the Grand Mosque of Paris.  The photos online looked lovely and it really was, although I imagine that it's even more beautiful when the fountains are on and the garden is at its peak.
One of Paris' many gardens is right behind the mosque as well, so we walked over.  I'm not sure if the building was always a greenhouse, but the gardens now host a zoo and many lovely plants in the greenhouse buildings.
Then it was time for our next stop at Le Procope.  It's clearly not a secret, but I'd never heard of it before and neither had my American friend, so we went in for a drink.  I have no idea if the food is any good, but this place is all about the history and atmosphere.  Napoléon used to stop in, as did Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.  If you stop in, make sure to have a look around!  It's Paris' oldest continuously operated bar (since 1686).
I was hoping that we'd end the day on a positive food note as well with reservations at Semilla.  Sure enough, it was another good choice.  The prices were higher (and servings smaller) than in the countryside, but the food was clearly plated and paired well - hands down the best restaurant in Paris that I've eaten at so far!  I will take a moment to note that I'm not a "100 Euro a plate" sort of person, so this is the opinion of somebody who enjoys eating good food, but has never bothered to look into Michelin guides or stars or anything of that sort.
My onion tart starter

All-in-all, it was an interesting day seeing an area of Paris that I'd never spent time in before.  I'd certainly return to the restaurants again when I'm in Paris and feel they are a good choice for American guests too!