Minutia of Living in France Part 1: From Banks to Insurance to Red Tape

There is a lot of minutia to living. There are things that I tend to forget about because they’ve become so ingrained in my everyday life. These details, from going to the store, to opening a door, to turning on the stove rarely cross my mind when I’m in the United States. Yet because it is my first time in France, I feel like each time I do something, I’m learning how to do it for the first time. I get a sense of excitement when I come across a new detail. It feels like each difference is a challenge and a chance for me to figure out how to adapt.

Here is the first in a series of blog posts about some of the particulars (from my American perspective) that have struck me in the last week.

Warning: In this series I am talking about minutia and therefore there will a lot of minutia. Continue reading if you dare.

Administrative Tasks

Picking a Bank

Banks and insurance were probably the things I was least looking forward to when arriving in France. Mostly because I’ve never even done them in the US. In the US, my parents opened a bank account for me when I was a teen and I’ve used the same bank since. It’s pretty much the same story for my US insurance.

As such, the idea of doing these things–let alone in another language–was daunting. Before arriving in France, I did the best that I could to Google search how-to’s and to find the names of popular banks in France. After reading internet advice and visiting French bank websites, I came to the frustrating conclusion that the best way to get information about fees and services would be to wait until I get to France. Really, the main thing that I learned from my research was that fees and services vary from branch to branch even if the it’s the same bank. This is why it’s best to go in-person.

One morning I set out on a mission, to find a bank that would best suit my needs (i.e. as cheap as possible, international travel friendly). Based on my preliminary internet research, I had hoped to open an account with BNP Paribas, a bank with tons of international affiliates. I thought it would be useful to have an account with them in case I wanted to travel outside of the Eurozone or to keep my account open after I leave France.

So, I started at my local BNP Paribas. As it turns out, in order to have a free account with them you need to be a student. Nancy is pretty cool city because it is full of universities and young people. This means there are a lot of good deals for students. Unfortunately for me, I am just an international young person working with a limited budget. I thanked the banker for the information and moved on to the next bank.

I had gotten a recommendation from a previous language assistant to try Caisse d’Epargne. This time I was told to open an account would be free so long as I was under 26, but I would have to pay approximately 4 euros a month in order to have a bank card. From what I can tell, cards function a little differently in France than they do in the US. Bank cards in France are basically used as cards to access ATMs, but can also function as debit and/or credit cards. I know that I would like the flexibility of paying with a card while traveling and this deal was based on age not student status, so it sounded better to me.

I was about to call it for the day and compare my two options when, on a whim, I walked into the next bank I saw–Société Générale. After taking a minute to explain my situation, I was told that I could open an account for free and have a bank card for free for up to one year. The card would be a Visa and be a viable option for travel throughout the Eurozone. And as added bonuses, the woman who was helping me was super friendly and was willing to open my account for me right then even though I did not have my proof of residency (l’attestation de l’hébergement) yet. I think she found me endearing. She told me she doesn’t come across very many Americans in Nancy. It’s mostly students from Germany, Spain, and occasionally Brazil.

Anyway, because she was so friendly and because it was free, I took the deal and we started the paper work. She took my contact information (email, French phone number), made a copy of my passport, and said all I needed to do to make it official was to come back with my official attestation. She was able to give me my account number and releves d’identite bancaire (RIB)–information used to by institutions to transfer recurring payments or deposits to your account–that day.

So my general advice to someone who’s looking for a bank in France, think about what your needs are, ask about deals for young people, ask the bank about the required documents, and don’t be afraid to shop around. You don’t need to open an account with the first bank you see.

Some other banks I’ve seen around, but didn’t walk into are LCL, Crédit Mutuel, Crédit Agricole, CIC, La Poste, Banque Populaire, and AXA. There are plenty of choices and from my experience if there is one bank around it’s likely that there are 3 or 4 different ones on the same square block.

Picking an Insurance Company

I would just like to say that so far I have pretty much hit the jackpot with my TAPIF experience. From what I can tell, TAPIF is a large program that is part of an even larger French initiative with the Centre international d’études et pédagogiques (CIEP).  to bring native speakers of all different languages to French classrooms. Because there are literally thousands of language assistants coming into France through this initiative, once you are accepted to TAPIF much of the administrative stuff is left up to the individual, including–in many cases–finding housing.

The moment I received my contract (arrêté de nomination) in June, I was able to reach out to my school and ask about housing. The English teacher got back to me and let me know that I would have free housing on campus during my stay. I nearly wept with relief when I found out. It’s because I already knew that I would be staying at the school, even though I didn’t have the official attestation de l’hébergment yet, that allowed me to open my bank account. Now all I needed was to get the official attestation and renter’s insurance.

So on Wednesday and Thursday, I made several trips to the school. I shadowed the English teacher during the day and then he helped me get all the official documents sorted after classes. I got the attestation in the form of an official letter from the director of the school saying that would be residing on campus. In order to receive the keys to the apartment, I needed proof of insurance that would cover things like damage to the apartment, theft, and something the French call responsabilité civile.

The English teacher graciously took me to an insurance company called MAIF, historically for teachers, and got me a contract through December 31st, 2016 for about 15 euros a month with an option to renew beginning January 1st, 2017. I gave them my RIB for automatic payments from my bank account.

For all the research I had done on French banks, I hadn’t thought to do the same with insurance. When I went back to Société Générale with my attestation de l’hébergement, the same woman who had helped me before told me that the bank also offers insurance. As it turns out, many banks in France also offer insurance. Their plan was a couple euros a month cheaper than MAIF and offered better protection. This lovely woman told me that if I wanted to switch to my bank’s insurance I could do so beginning on January 1st and she would make sure to end the automatic payments to MAIF on the back end. Bless her soul.

I wish I had taken my own advice about banks and applied it to insurance companies because I could have gone through the same research/shopping process to find insurance. But at the time, I just was going along with the advice of the teacher from my school. I should mention my teacher is extremely amiable, helpful, and welcoming. I am grateful for everything he’s already done for me. The bit about the insurance is just something I wish I knew prior to going into the whole thing.

And More Red Tape

I like to tell myself that the process of getting access to the lycée, getting a meal card, getting wifi, and getting the keys to my apartment are all part of the cultural experience of France. Yes, it took a really long time (as in an entire day), but it was interesting to see how things are done in France.

What I’ve observed thus far:

Cards Are Everything

I have a separate card for entering the main door of the lycée and for swiping for meals at the cafeteria. Of course I had to go to separate offices to get those taken care of. I also went to separate offices to create my computer account for the lycée network and for wifi access, but thankfully they didn’t give me cards for those. I have cards for train discounts and for cultural discounts. I will also have cards for my insurance and bank (that’s not so different from the US). I guess it’s kind of like how the US has loyalty cards for stores, but in France it’s cards for all the separate public agencies and services.


There’s a Key for That

In the same way that there’s a card for everything, there’s also a key for everything. I have a separate key for the front gate of campus, the back gate of campus, the apartment building, the actual apartment, and my bedroom. Throw in my bike lock key and my lanyard is currently very heavily occupied. I’m not really sure if this is actually a French thing, but maybe rather a small town/old building thing. But hey, at least I’m secure right?

Yes, the old school looking one is actually a functional key.

Something unique about my lycée is that it is actually a cité scolaire, meaning are multiple buildings on the campus that house a collège, a lycée, and post-baccalaureate classes (see Wikipedia for a quick run-down of the French education system). My arrêté de nomination is split 75% at the lycée and 25% at the collège. This works out nicely for me because my housing and work are all centralized in one place. Having a different key for each entrance should be the least of my complaints.

Bridge connecting the two parts of campus, Site Blandan and Site Bertin

Hard Copies All the Time

In most day-to-day things, the French seem much better at cutting back on waste than the US. I hardly see plastic shopping bags, zip lock bags, or disposable paper products (napkins, plates, wet wipes, paper towels). I’m guessing the smaller restaurant portions also mean less food waste, but the use of paper documents still holds strong. I’m so used to email receipts, digital signatures, and online verifications, when everyone in France starting photocopying everything in duplicate or triplicate I couldn’t help but wonder where they stored all these hard copies.

I had originally thought that I was going to be able to cover my observations from the last week about settling into French life in one blog post, but as I started making a list of the things I wanted to write about one blog post turned into one very long blog post with four sections, which then turned into a four-part series. In the next part of the series, I will be covering shopping from cellphones to food to house essentials.

You all should let me know what you think about this series before I continue with what could be an intensely long monologue about what I’ve been doing in France, which is basically just relearning how to be a functional human being.

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