By: Hamish Clinton and Jozsef Varga
Welcome back to another episode of “Jo and Hamish’s life in Menton, the most South-Eastern town in all of France.”
For those of you reading this column for the very first time, here is a quick rundown of our situation: We are both third-year students in the French Cohort Program at Simon Fraser University (and just like most of the people reading this, we are proud of SFU, yet skeptical, and honestly not altogether loyal until we meet someone bragging about UBC at a pub). Our cohort at SFU is very small, and that’s one of the many reasons we love it.
However, now that we are on exchange in the tiny French town of Menton, our cohort doesn’t seem all that small after all. Sciences Po is a world-renowned political sciences university, blah, blah, blah, and it’s true that its Paris campus is very famous and relatively large. But over in the bottom-right corner of the country, you can find their lesser-known “Middle Eastern and North African Studies” campus. Here, the entire Sciences Po university population is about the size of a first-year criminology course. Yup, pretty much 300 students. That is all.
So yes, we have readjusted our definition of “small” since we landed in the nearby airport of Nice about three months ago. And the word “small” is not the only thing that has needed “readjustment.” After all these “readjustments,” our patience has been thoroughly tested.
If you ever come to France for a prolonged period of time, be warned that when it comes to credit cards, banks, and regulations in general really, please: DO NOT HOLD YOUR BREATH.
Living in France (a.k.a. The Home to All Bureaucracy, Our Living Fucking Nightmare, The Place Where Monetary Happiness and Security Goes to Die) has presented us with problems. These turned out not to be limited to our sketchy-TunisAir-ticket scenario, but also much closer to home, literally. Oh yes: the classic paying-rent-scenario.
It seems easy, right? You’re in France. Pay your French landlord the money you owe them, if not through the French bank account you should have opened upon landing in the country, as any responsible adult actually holding the reins of their own life would likely do, then at least by pulling straight cash out of an ATM and risking getting robbed at knife-point, and then physically handing them the cash!
You might be thinking: what are you so worked up about, boys? Why is this so hard for you? Why are you both seemingly incompetent and unable to fulfill the bare-minimum basics of being independent adults? It is only rent after all!
So. Very. Wrong. It is NOT “only rent” for us. Not only does our landlord not live in France (but in Italy, of course), but our French bank, for the longest time, failed to give us functioning debit or credit cards! We had our appointment to set up these accounts (drum roll please) nearly 70 DAYS before receiving actually fully functional cards . . . What the heck, France.
So we did the courteous thing to pay our rent: we went to Italy. We literally hopped on the train and went to Milan, where our landlord lives, with twelve-hundred euros cash in hand to meet up with them. For those of you at home, keep in mind that we are professionals and that we otherwise strongly recommend against pulling risky-ass stunts like this.
THEY WOULDN’T MEET WITH US.
No biggie though right? Upon rejecting us, they gave us an alternative: the option of going directly through their bank, which, turns out, has a branch literally in the building we are living in back in Menton, France (thank you for letting us know before we took a four-day trip across the border in the hopes of meeting up with you).
But, fun fact, upon our return to our little town, their bank outright refused to take our cold hard cash because we didn’t have a bank card. Makes sense, no bank card, no sketchy random deposit into a stranger’s account. But still: we had gotten our hopes up.
What was left then? Well, we may have overlooked a fun friend called “Western Union.” Yeah, this one’s on us. Here’s another fun fact, you apparently can’t transfer money internationally from a Canadian bank while you are also international. That said, our pal Western Union was actually there the whole time to pick up the slack (and the hefty transaction fees, as all good pals do). So we paid rent through Hamish’s account and asked our landlord if they had received confirmation the following day.
NOPE! Are you even surprised at this point?
Not only did they not receive confirmation but, upon further investigation, Hamish’s entire account had been frozen by his Canadian bank. Apparently someone’s first ever Western Union transfer being their max amount from a Canadian student bank account and being wired from out of country in the south of France to an unknown individual in Italy is “suspicious.” Classic. But honestly pretty reasonable. For once.
After some long-distance phone calls, and a whole slew of other call centre-related adventures, the bank finally decided we weren’t drug lords and let the transfers through. What is funny, though, is that Western Union has a waiting period when you send back-to-back transfers, so our full rent wasn’t able to be collected by our landlord for another eight days.
Needless to say, our landlord is not our biggest fan. In fact, they have since decided to sell the apartment we are staying in — though that is a story for another time. The real takeaway here is that being stuck without bank accounts for the majority of your first three months in France has further reaching disadvantages than a simple blood feud between you and your property owner. We have missed out on so many opportunities.
For starters, there is something called the “CAF.” This is a fun little program run by the French government that gives poor freeloaders like ourselves money to be able to afford the rent that is occasionally difficult to get to your landlords (though not typically because of their physical location/lack of proof of existence, but rather because of a lack of funds).
It is wonderful. We like money. Moreover, we like free money that requires absolutely zero work on our part. We, after all, are stand-up citizens. A couple of decent guys who are willing to earn their way through life, but let’s face it, capitalism kills.
We needed French bank accounts, IBAN numbers, and BIC numbers linked to a French account to complete the applications to even begin the process of getting this beautiful free money.
Regardless of our own work-ethic (which, for you future employers our there, is nothing short of gobsmackingly, life-changingly, awe-inspiringly epic), we have literally been cheated out of close to 300 euros each so far, which is quite a bit for us students (feel free to check the current Euro-CAD exchange rate and cry for us some more).
On another note, being short a couple French bank cards caused us a little grief in the home amenities department. Primarily one amenity: Wi-Fi, which can only be purchased with French bank cards. The strange little word that meant nothing just a short few years ago but now runs our lives. What would life be like without Wi-Fi? What would life be like, sitting at home watching the fireplace and/or the new colour TV your family could finally afford? Or worse, playing in nature? Noticing the people walking by on the street as you walk to work or school?
Never fear, we can tell you that isn’t the case. Living without Wi-Fi in the home hasn’t been too tough since one thing France does have going for it is its cheap phone plans, which you thankfully can buy with a Canadian credit card. We managed to get 60 GB a month for €8.99… But regardless of how much we pay, the data doesn’t work at home when your dwelling happens to be underground. We don’t have a fireplace or a functional TV either so we have resorted to staring at the fridge instead. It makes some cool noises, so things aren’t all bad.
Joking aside though, the “needing a functional French bank account to have access to home Wi-Fi” debacle (catchy name, we know) has been a proverbial thorn in the side of our ability to complete school work. We need to leave the house every time we want to get an online reference to anything, check our emails, visit the French version of Canvas, or properly procrastinate with cute corgi videos on Instagram.
Just another reason why:
- Our lives are tough, and
- Why we are coming to hate the eternally lumbering machine that seems to be what keeps the French way of life forging on… slowly.