Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Emigrant's Dilemma, Chapter 10: The Week of (Almost) Giving Up

I don't believe in omens, do you? Or, phrased differently, should I?

Sunday, everything was looking good for getting the move together. I printed out my latest U.S. bank statement, and had gathered together my German ones, all ready for my copy machine. These, along with some letters from people who use my work, would comprise the dossier that French landlords require. I had several leads saved in my accounts at various online apartment-search engines in France. I laid the first two sheets of the bank statements on the machine, pressed the button and...scan failure. It spat out an incomprehensible piece of paper with specks of grey on it. I rebooted the machine. It happened again. I took a deep breath, and told myself there'd be copy-shops in Montpellier.

Monday, as all days with 14-hour train rides tend to be, was uneventful. I called my friends from the Montpellier station and they were on their way to see the fireworks for Bastille Day. I told them I'd check in at my hotel and join them. I then went to the tram-stop and got on the tram.

Thirty minutes later, the tram stopped at its last stop. My hotel was further down the road. I grabbed my luggage and walked down a desolate highway. Finally the lights of the hotel heaved into view. There would, it developed, be no more trams back into town. I was Out There. So I called my friends, expressed regrets, and read til it was time for bed.

The next morning, I realized that this hotel was too far out of town to be practical. It wasn't just in a suburb (Castelnau-le-Lez, if you're keeping score) but in a suburb of a suburb. I booked a room at a suite hotel, cheap, that seemed to be in town, packed my bags, and checked out. The guy at the desk sighed as I told him I liked the place fine (sort of a lie) but I had business in the centre ville and couldn't conduct it from this far out.

Not knowing exactly where my new place was, I took the tram back to the train station and grabbed a taxi. Ten euros later, I was at my new place, which was also not exactly central. There was, however, a bus stop right in front of the place, and another across the street which would get me back into town. But the first thing to do would be to get my in-room internet going and cruise the classifieds. This didn't prove to be easy. There was no cable in the room, as there usually is. The front desk explained that they sold the cables -- the employees themselves -- to raise a little extra money. How French!

But once I'd bought one, it still didn't work. I jacked around with the computer for several hours, then took it down to the lounge where there was free wi-fi. Not exactly to my surprise, there were no new listings the day after a national holiday. It was getting on towards six, so I decided to chuck it all and head into town to meet the crew at the Vert Anglais. One of them, Andy, is an IT specialist, and might have a clue what was wrong with my hookup.

There was an additional complication. As usual, I wanted access to a large amount of cash in order to be able to just nail a place if I found one. I had around 1200 euros' worth of dollars in my bank account, and was expecting more. But since I couldn't be certain it'd get there on time, I asked a friend who'd offered financial assistance if I were in need to loan me another thousand euros' worth of dollars, less than I was expecting, but enough to cover any eventuality. He agreed, and then did something that turned out to be disastrous: he used PayPal.

One of the last e-mails I saw before heading into town was that my PayPal account had been suspended pending investigation of my circumstances to allay suspicions that I was money laundering. One of the pieces of evidence they needed was a faxed document showing my address -- a recent utility bill would do. Well, I have recent utility bills, although no fax machine, but they were all back in Berlin.

In town, the crew was gathered around the usual table at the Bar Vert Anglais. I went in to say hi to the bartender, and told him in passing that I'd discovered that the bus that served my hotel stopped running at 8. "Welcome to France," he said, "where nothing works." I took my drink (Suze and tonic -- I'll write about my discovery of this magic fluid later) and sat down at the table. I mentioned my computer troubles to Andy, who basically said "it could be anything," which turned out to be true, as we'll see. As for PayPal Bart told me he does all his billing through PayPal and that he's never had trouble with multiple thousands, so I should just call their number in the States and I'd be surprised how helpful they were.

This left the big problem: no apartments. Unlike a couple of weeks ago, nobody knew of anything. This was not heartening. Of course, the places people did know about last time didn't pan out at all, so it was about even. I decided to treat myself to a nice welcome-to-Montpellier dinner at one of the cheap restaurants I liked (the Bistrot d'Alco, to be exact), only to discover that it was closed for vacation. Oh, yeah. Welcome to France, where they take the summer off.

I rationalized the ten-euro taxi ride back to the hotel by reminding myself that I'd gone across the huge traffic-circle on which my hotel sits to an equally huge supermarket, Champion, and bought breakfast supplies for another ten euros. This would be enough to last me my entire stay, and since breakfast here is twelve euros, and had been ten at the last place, I was just spending the breakfast money on the taxi.

Yesterday, I woke up to the news that the dollar had crashed. Badly. It had exceeded the $1.60/euro cap the European Central Bank had agreed to maintain. I called PayPal to learn that it opened at 6am, Central time, 1pm my time. So I passed the time trying to get my computer to work. And, mirabilie dictu, I did! How, I don't know (Andy's comment, later: "Sometimes the guys who scream at you to get it back up don't realize that things just happen"). But now I have internet in my room.

I got through to PayPal, and as Bart had said, they were extremely helpful. Well, up to a point: I still had to fax that bill to them. And that bill was still on my desk in Berlin. There was more bad news, too: "If I could just push a button and clear this up," the guy said -- noting that he of course couldn't -- "that money won't clear until Friday, and then if you went to transfer it to your bank in the States, that wouldn't clear until Tuesday." And I leave here on Monday.

And there were still no leads to apartments.

(I should amend this by saying there were a few leads through agencies, but I'm trying to avoid them, not only because of their fees, but because they want extra assurance of financial stability which I can't give them, like a year's rent in escrow).

So, feeling discouraged, I took the bus into town, figuring I'd go have lunch at the Vert Anglais. I managed to get there ten minutes after the kitchen closed. I grabbed something around the corner and called Bart to see if he was able to go see the photography exhibit at the Pavillion Populaire, which is showing 240 Weegee photos -- right up his alley -- but a client was hanging him up. Oh, well, I'd go alone. (I've got a lot to say about this show, which is as revelatory about French attitudes to America as it is about Weegee, but I'll save that for later).

Finally, I showed up at the Vert Anglais again. Here it was, Wednesday, and I hadn't accompished a thing. Nor, unless something changed, would I. I'd already spent 400 euros on a train ticket and another 400 on the hotel (which made me pay in advance). Maybe I should give up and...wait another year? No. I can't do that.

But...what should I do? I've got four more days here, one of which, Sunday, is useless. The band I was going to write about hasn't been in touch, and I have no idea how to contact them. That'll cost me $500 for the article, which I was rather counting on. (So much for trying to arrange something a month in advance).

I also realized something else: I'm terrified of making phone calls in French. (I'm terrified of making them in German, for that matter). If I reveal myself as a stuttering, barely-intelligible foreigner, moreover one without the financial resources of a regular job, who'll rent to me? Maybe I should give up.

But I'm not going to. I have a very tenuous lead which I'm going to pursue today after writing out a script which I hope will make sense to the landlord I have to call about an unfinished apartment that is likely to become available soon. Bart and his girlfriend Chris and I have also floated the idea of a two-month apartment exchange, since I feel okay about them living in my place in Berlin, but that might not come off, either. And I haven't checked the listings today.

Probably I should give up, but I'm not going to. Yet.


Marie Javins said...

I had that Paypal problem once in Vietnam, and they lectured me then on signing on from banned countries.

As if I had any idea there were such thing as banned Paypal countries.

But they let me fax in a photocopy of my passport. Guess their rules have changed.

Sean said...

What about looking for an apartment in whatever suburb-of-a-suburb-of-a-suburb you can get to with the bus or train/tram/whatever?

There'll be nothing there, and what there is will close early every night, and only old people will live there. But it'd be somewhere a lot closer than Berlin to live while looking for a more desirable place.

Unknown said...

i didn't realize that the reason the dollar hadn't gone past $1.60 against the euro was because of a capping by the european bank. that makes so much sense. and causes a new wash of worries as i read more about the tumbling dollar, rising food costs in germany, and recession already in or looming everywhere.

may something break for you, or have broken for you, by now in your search.

Cyn said...

Bonne courage, Ed. We're all rooting for you!

Ed Ward said...

Sean, you're going to find this counterintuitive because you're not French, but most French people want to live in those far-out suburbs. They own cars, so the distance isn't so much of an issue, and they shop at big supermarkets and the odd farmer's market that sets up somewhere nearby. They live in clusters of what they call "villas," with walls around them (not because they're anti-social, but because the swimming-pool laws require them, and they all want pools), and it all looks like New Jersey set down in the Texas Hill Country.

Meanwhile, the ancient limestone buildings and the grand 19th century buildings with the lovely detailing carved into the outer walls and wonderful wrought-iron balconies, the apartments with 14-foot ceilings, and the places in the pedestrianized center with its fantastic access via bus and tram to the rest of the city is left to students and immigrants.

And expat beatniks. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

Fingers (and everything else) crossed for you.

Claude Bovee said...

I sure hope you can dodge some of those landmines that are stifling you from moving to Montpellier, Ed? But to look on the sunnyside, at least you are mired in 'French Red Tape' now, instead of 'German Red Tape'! John