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On Saturday, I’ve arranged with Marie to look at two of her apartments on Rue de la Poste. She’s offered to change us to a monthly rental when she’s done with the August vacation season. This will be much less expensive for us.
The choices will be either another one bedroom apartment with the boys sleeping in the living room or an almost-three bedroom apartment with a sleeping loft. My younger son, Paul, would like the larger apartment so he can have a room of his own.
But I want to rent the cheapest apartment possible so we can afford to travel and still maintain a consistent French address. I don’t want to disrupt the cumbersome, slow and complicated process of getting our residence permits by changing our address as we move around. If the apartment is cheap enough, we’ll be able to leave most of our things behind and go on the road. And then, we’d have a home to come home to.
This is my theory for today.
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I’d like to have a Euro buffer in the bank against exchange-rate fluctuations. Right now, we’re living on cash from my American account out of the teller machine. This gives the most current exchange rate and incurs only small international charges. I can take out three-hundred dollars at a time.The exchange rate isn’t bad right now.
But I’ve traveled here when the exchange rate was much higher. A high exchange rate burns money faster for the same expenses. I knew an expat couple near Toulouse who were overwhelmed by the high exchange rate in 2008. Their pay check was in dollars. They couldn’t afford to stay.
Yesterday, before I moved more money, I wanted to know the difference between the cost of a wire transfer and the cost of depositing a foreign check.
My husband and I spent the morning studying the bank’s booklet of tarifs (fees) together. We used our French dictionary and an on-line translator. He’s a software engineer with a background in theoretical mathematics. I’m a doctor. Between the two of us, you’d think we could sort out bank fees. But we couldn’t.
When we moved money to open our French account a few weeks ago, no one could tell us the exact cost of moving our money. The assistant manager who opened our account could only tell me that it would be easier to write a check but that the money would take a lot longer. A wire transfer is faster but more complicated. She told me she’d go ask about the cost of each. But she didn’t.
I understand. Talking to us is an overwhelming project. It strains even business polite.
When we got to the bank yesterday, the regulars who’re used to us had gone on vacation. It’s August. A lot of France goes on vacation at the same time in August. Businesses are run by skeleton crews of students and substitutes.
The lone student teller had a long line. When we made it to the front, she had no idea how to handle our deposit of a chèque étranger (foreign check). She certainly couldn’t answer our question about bank fees. After another wait, a bright young substitute manager took us into the office.
“You’re the Americans!” She bubbled and smiled. “You asked about car insurance!”
“We didn’t find a car yet,” I said. “We’re still looking.” I wondered how I’ll tell them I’ve found cheaper insurance through an agent who speaks English.
She told me a check is slow and a wire transfer is fast.
“Yes. But how much will it cost me? Which way is plus cher (more expensive)?”
By my calculations there should be a several hundred dollar difference between the two transfers. I wanted the cheaper way.
She looked confused. I showed her the page in my tarif (fee) booklet.
The light came on in her face. She scribbled curling French numbers on the desk blotter for a while. A check deposit costs a bit more after a break even point. But she said the difference would only be a matter of a few Euros at this end. It really was a question of whether I wanted the transfer to be easy or fast.
It turned out I wasn’t just confused by the French words. I was also confused by math symbols I’d never seen before. What I’d thought were “per cent” signs, were “per mille” signs. I missed the second tiny zero to the right of the slash. The tarifs were “per thousand” instead of “per hundred” Euros.
But she foundered quickly and gave up. She got the freaked-out look on her face that I get when I’m lost speaking French.
“It’s exhausting… to speak,” she said. She flapped her hands toward her open mouth.
“Yes,” I agreed. “Exhausting.”
I stuck with French.
It can be hard to speak another language. It’s a lot of work for anyone who has to do this. Even if you’re young and bright, it’s still exhausting and stressful.
Beyond the bank calculations, math symbols and tarif explanations, real human communication had happened. We’d agreed that it’s exhausting and difficult to speak a language other than your mother tongue.
International empathy had occurred.
My husband and I left without making our deposit. We needed to re-group, compare notes and be sure we’d understood things the same way. We were exhausted too. We walked around the corner to the hotel bar and had coffees.
By the time we’d girded our numeric and linguistic loins and were ready to deposit our check, the bank had closed for lunch.
So we walked back home and made our lunch, too.
After lunch, we were back with the same student teller who didn’t know how to take a chèque étranger in deposit. My deposit slips are printed for Euros. There’s no place to write dollars. They use commas where we use decimal points. The two substitute bankers dug through a cabinet and came up with a triplicate deposit form. The substitute manager filled it out for me, then gave me a copy.
After this, Robert and I walked back home and took a nap.
Depositing a chèque étranger is an exhausting all-day two-person project.
And it’s another French lesson.
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Thanks for reading.