Author Archives: Eric

Car care in France (or “Bumper cars in France”)

This could be a short post. As it turns out, the concept of “car care” is somewhat mythical in France. After our first visit to France and seeing that all of the cars are dented and missing parts (mirrors, etc.), Tiffany and I decided that we had to buy our car in Germany where things are very much the opposite.

This is probably the number one reason why I couldn’t see staying in France forever. It is nearly impossible to keep a car in good condition here. French drivers (in general; there are many exceptions) treat the other cars in the parking lot as if they only exist to help them determine when they are all the way in their spot or when their door is open all the way. I always park in a nice end spot at the lab, where only my coworkers park around me. Even though Chalon-sur-Saône doesn’t have particularly tight parking, drivers can’t be trusted. In the United States this can be a problem too, but there they at least know in the back of their minds that they are doing something wrong.

The French explain it away, saying they treat their cars like tools. This is a bad attitude for a few reasons. First, driving is a big responsibility and I can’t respect anybody who does it but doesn’t take pride in it. If they can’t be bothered to avoid other cars in the parking lot, what about small children? Second, the car represents a large investment, both financially and environmentally. It’s only responsible to treat it well to maximize its life. Even if they don’t intend to keep it long, they could leave some life in it for the next guy. Finally, I don’t really care how they treat their cars (well, I like the environment so I do care a little). When they damage my car is when we have a problem.

Repair shops

Despite this, I have managed to get decent car repairs in France. The Volkswagen dealership is about the same as in any country (high priced, but seemingly solid work). My biggest problem with the VW dealership in Chalon-sur-Saône (Saône Automobiles) is that I caught the service advisor resting my door on another car one time. He said, “Oh there’s a plastic strip so it’s OK.” Some of my coworkers are pretty car-conscious and they agreed this was unacceptable.

For little stuff we can go to Feu Vert. It’s a chain of general-service garages something like Goodyear in the US. I don’t like to trust chains like this for VW-specific stuff, but they are friendly and fine for the little standard stuff. We also go to Profil+, which is another such shop. They are great because they do free inspections. In two visits they have found nothing wrong, so I guess they are pretty honest. Of course, I suppose they are also French so maybe their calibration is off. Both of these shops and the dealership have always been able to communicate with me in some combination of English and basic French with no problems.

Finally, I discovered a place called L’Atelier Self Auto. This is a really cool concept where they let you rent shop space to work on your own car. They have tools, lifts, and fluid catch pans. For extra, they will allegedly help with the repair. I just went there one time to do an oil change and I was very happy with it. I’d like to see more of these places around the world. I suppose liability is tricky but it’s really awesome to facilitate car owners trying to learn about their cars. Plus I get to do the repair the right way with the best parts.

USA todo list

We recently spent several weeks in the US. I made quite a tour (Connecticut, Arizona, Nevada, and Ohio). Here are the things that I missed and made sure to have when I was there.


  • Root beer: It’s very hard to find it in Europe. In Paris, there are a couple international grocery stores where a 12-pack can be purchased for about 24 Euro, which is too rich for my blood. On our first night, at a diner in CT, we enjoyed root beer floats!
  • Wendy’s Spicy Chicken sandwich: We do have American fast food here in Europe, but not Wendy’s. I’ve always had a thing for the Spicy Chicken so this is always on my list when I come home.
  • BBQ: I didn’t go to any specific BBQ joints, but I did have some meals with BBQ components.
  • American breakfast: They don’t like to eat hot food for breakfast in Europe. This is a problem for me because a typical American breakfast is just about my favorite meal in the US, regardless of the time of day. All I need is eggs over easy, breakfast potatoes, and wheat toast.
  • Boating: I miss my boat. It is in storage at the moment, but some friends have another one that we took out for some wakeboarding two times while I was in Ohio.

Phoenix area

  • Chino Bandido: This might be my favorite restaurant in Arizona (though there are at least two locations). Normally I go to the Chandler location, but this time I met up with a friend at the old one in Phoenix.
  • Four Peaks Brewing Company: Or is this one my favorite? I prefer the Tempe location, and I always get the Four Peaks Cheeseburger, medium with pepperjack, and fries. For a drink I always go with the Oatmeal Stout milkshake. When I lived there it felt a bit too rich for my blood at about $6, but now that Four Peaks is a special trip, I always get one. I’ve heard good things about most of the menu, though I haven’t experimented much.
  • Cheba Hut: This place has started to spread around the US a bit, but I guess it started in Tempe. I generally go to one in Mesa and this trip was no exception.
  • XTreme Bean: This is my old coffee shop hangout around the corner from the house in Tempe. It can get a bit crowded but it’s close, conducive for working, and pretty tasty.
  • Steve’s Espresso (deprecated): I used to really like this place because they use a French press and are very conveniently located in Tempe, but this time I discovered that they got rid of the WiFi. I understand there are principled debates to be had about the desired atmosphere in coffee shops, but WiFi is generally non-negotiable for my needs.

My primary regret is that I didn’t make it to Waffle House. I could go for some grits.

Apps for travelers and expats

Technology allows us to travel and move much more efficiently than would have ever been possible 20 years ago. I do try to be as minimalist as possible in my technology usage. Having accounts all over the world can present security threats. Additionally, simplifying our technology means less to carry around when traveling and moving, and less data to be stolen or lost. But, that said, I also like to be prepared. I have a 3-year old Macbook Pro and Tiffany has an older Macbook. These are pretty versatile, light, and have good battery life. For phones, I use a Galaxy Nexus and Tiffany has an iPhone 4. We also have some external drives for Time Machine and storing TV shows and such.

Keep in mind that we don’t just travel, but we are also expats. Every day is sort of like traveling for us, so our needs are broad. I will be listing the apps we use for our Macs and our phones (the OS in brackets just tells where we use it). Also I will break them into categories for general travel apps, apps for traveling Germany, and apps for traveling France.


General travel/expat apps

  • Aperture [Mac]: This is important for me, because I take a lot of photos when we travel, and I usually post the best ones to Flickr. This is why I’ve included it, though realistically it’s generally the sort of thing that you just need once you get home. Aperture is Apple’s pro photo processing app. If you are serious about photography, I highly recommend it.
  • DEVONthink Pro Office [Mac]: We use this to manage our paperless office. There is a lot of bureaucracy in France, and a lot of paper. I scan every paper we get, use OCR in DEVONthink (available only in the “Pro Office” version) to convert it to a searchable PDF, and file it in the database. Tiffany and I are currently sharing the database using the built-in Dropbox sync feature which saves the “sync store” to a shared Dropbox account. Note that you cannot store the database itself in Dropbox as this can lead to corruption, particularly if you access it from two computers at once. The Dropbox sync feature locks the sync store during writes, to prevent corruption. Unfortunately this makes use of Dropbox’s “Apps” feature, storing the files in a directory that cannot be shared using the normal sharing mechanism in Dropbox. To get around this, we both share a single Dropbox account. I must say that we had a sync problem last week that led to some changes being lost after a really big revision on one computer. But, I think if we are more careful when making large changes going forward we will be fine. I chose this solution over others, like Evernote, because I wanted the ability to control the database for security reasons and because free solutions go away.
  • Dropbox [Mac], JottaCloud [Mac]: The cloud is important when traveling around. If my laptop is not handy, or broken, I may need to access files from another computer. You probably already have Dropbox (if not, click here for referral), but it’s a good way to have free cloud storage. The NSA undoubtedly has access, but it is more mature and stable than JottaCloud. I use JottaCloud for files that don’t change rapidly, due to past experiences with sync bugs. The nice thing about JottaCloud is that it has no operations in the US, meaning that the NSA will have a harder time getting access. JottaCloud doesn’t have a referral link, but if you ask me I can refer you with an email address.
  • Skype [Mac, Android]: I don’t like it much. It’s closed-source and buggy. But for some reason everybody uses it so it’s a must-have.
  • Google Hangouts [Android]: It’s horrible compared to Google Talk, which it replaced, but it’s my primary way of messaging from my phone (which I rarely do, really).
  • Wunderlist [Mac, Android, iOS]: As expats, there are always a lot of gears in motion to satisfy bureaucratic requirements. We use the free version of this app to sync our todo lists.
  • Tunnelblick [Mac]: This is an open source VPN app that I use with the VPNBook service. I also used Hotspot Shield for a while, but I didn’t like the ads. Sometimes things (videos, etc.) are blocked in certain countries or establishments. These apps can often get around that. They can also  I don’t have any loyalty to a particular app or service, but it’s a good idea to have one installed if living overseas.
  • Google Authenticator [Android]: This mobile app generates verification codes for 2-factor authentication on many websites, including Dropbox, Google, Linode, and GitHub. Security is extra important when traveling. If a laptop is stolen or data is intercepted on an insecure wifi network, 2-factor authentication provides great additional security to prevent unauthorized access to your accounts. Of course this means you should try not to lose the phone, but even if you do most accounts will still allow you to login from trusted devices for some time period before requesting a new code. In this way, you can likely still access Google from your laptop even after you lose your phone.
  • Google Maps [Android, iOS]: This one is kind of a staple and its use should be self explanatory.
  • Google Translate [Android]: This translation app even allows me to take a picture of some text, highlight it with my finger, and get a translation. Between this and normal keyboard-based translation, it’s very handy.
  • OnTheFly [Android]: ITA Matrix is the most powerful flight search engine, accessible via the web. You still have to buy the tickets on another site, but I know from first-hand experience that searching here can save you money. In my understanding, many other search engines actually use ITA Matrix under the hood. This is the mobile app. I don’t use it much, because normally I book from my couch. But I figure it’s a good idea to have for unexpected itinerary changes.
  • TripAdvisor [Android, iOS]: We use this to look at restaurant reviews almost every time we eat while traveling, though I guess it also works for other attractions.
  • Where’s My Droid [Android]: I’ve luckily never used it, but it should help find a stolen phone.
  • Undercover [Mac]: Again, I’ve never had to use it, but it helps locate stolen Macs.
  • Moni [iOS]: Tiffany uses it to categorize our expenses while we are traveling.

Germany apps

  • DB Navigator [Android, iOS]: We can search for trains all around Germany, purchase the ticket, and just show the conductor a QR code on the phone’s screen. When I last used it, I had a German bank account. I’m not sure what the payment options are if you don’t. However, the app is extremely valuable even if you must go to a machine and buy paper tickets. For example, an ICE ticket can be used anytime in a given day so this app makes it easy to search for alternate trains if you miss one or one is late/cancelled.
  • VBN [Android]: This app allows me to search and plan tram and bus routes all over Bremen.

France apps

  • FreeWiFi [Android]: If you live in France, Free is an inexpensive choice for home internet (also TV, phone, and mobile phone). The home internet package comes with a router that can broadcast two SSIDs, one private and one public. If you have Free and enable the public SSID (I have, but my box must be broken because I don’t see it), you can access Free hotspots all over the country. This Android app saves time by automatically signing me in.
  • TheFork [Android]: This is the mobile app for LaFourchette, a restaurant search engine that is used around France. In the big cities it can be used to find discounts. It is easy to save 30-50% at a nice restaurant in Paris, for example, if you book through the app.
  • Voyages-SNCF [Android]: This allows for searching and buying train tickets in France. We don’t travel by train much here, as train service is much worse than we are used to from Germany, so we don’t use the app much. I recall that you can only buy tickets through the app if you have a French phone number.
  • SNCF Direct [iOS]: This tracks trains in real time.

One final tip: I always keep scans of our passports and visas on my phone.

Very happy with my Apple Store repair in France!

In spite of what I have heard about Apple customer service/repairs in Europe, my recent experience was great. I had been experiencing intermittent lockups for around a year (sudden graphics freeze even with light load, necessitating a hard reboot) and in the past month or so my trackpad seemed to be less sensitive to physical clicks. I delayed addressing the problems due to the stories I had read about European Apple support. But, because my Applecare expires soon, I decided to finally get it looked at.

First I called the American Applecare phone support. The agent was understanding, but ultimately he claimed to have no ability to help me overseas. He said to ship it in I’d have to send it to my parents or somebody in the US first. This wasn’t really acceptable for me because it would take a lot of time and cost a lot of money to ship and insure it. He did say that the Apple Store here might help me, though curiously he did not make any guarantees that they would be willing. He tried but was unable to search for stores here, though I found one with no problem on Google.

I made an appointment for 9AM on a Saturday at the Apple Store in Dijon (La Toison d’Or location). The repair guys spoke sufficient English to understand my problems. They made me leave it but they let me take my SSD (they didn’t want it because it was aftermarket). A little after 5PM on Monday they called to let me know it was ready. We made an appointment and drove there immediately to pick it up just before closing, which is 7PM in France. They apparently replaced the trackpad and, though they didn’t replicate my problem, replaced the logic board for good measure (logic board would have been my guess as well). This took less than two business days and I’ve gone over a week now with no crashes. This is undoubtedly anecdotal, but it’s been a more successful repair than most of my past experiences with Apple Stores in the US. I’m really not sure why the Applecare representative didn’t just tell me to go to the store in the first place.

Travel in depth, not in breadth

This comes up often when planning trips and over this past week I have thought about it some more while traveling around the area with an American friend. I would like to argue for focusing on depth in travels, as opposed to simply maximizing the number of cities visited (though the latter would improve my map).

There are two general reasons that I like to choose a home base and spend time exploring a single region (travel in depth) rather than superficially seeing many regions.

  • I minimize overhead. One could argue that time spent in the car or on a train is still time spent sightseeing, but these activities have additional costs beyond the actual travel time. Every time I take the train, I must price options, book tickets, and possibly pick up the tickets. If there is a problem, such as a missed connection, I have to spend time and possibly money to fix it, often using limited resources on the road instead of from the comfort of my home internet connection. I will also need accommodations in every city I choose to stay the night. This means that my schedule is dictated by check in/out times. I also will need to find the place, and possibly parking, in a new city. I will have to deal with problems like, say, if the safe in my new room doesn’t work or if I need to figure out the internet options. In fact, internet is often unnecessary if I avoid moving around. If I have a home base in a single place, from which I depart for day trips, I minimize much of this overhead.
  • I get to see, in my opinion, more interesting things. Yes, I generally do go to major tourist attractions when I am in a city. But if you are only in a place for one or two days, that may be all you get to see. It takes longer to really learn about a place. When I visit a city, I want to have interesting stories and notes to compare, not just the same old points of interest.

So go forth and properly explore the cities you visit. Of course trips will always be limited—Tiffany and I often make a one-night stop in a city—but consider staying for a few days when possible, rather than skipping around a country. You will save money and reduce stress while making better use of your time. Unfortunately Americans often optimize for map completion rather than experiences.

French Fromage

In addition to learning about Burgundy wine, we have also been testing out many of the cheese (fromage) in France. Every week or so I have been buying a new variety for my lunches at work, with advice from my coworkers, and Tiffany has been getting another one at home at about the same frequency. We are really trying a lot. Of course the ultimate goal would be to eat every cheese on this Wikipedia page, but that may be a while. In the meantime, I made a fromage map on Google showing all of the regions we have tried cheeses from. If you click on a region marker, there is a note about which local cheeses we have tried. I hope to update it frequently.

On the wine front: Look for an upcoming post describing our thoughts after attending the Burgundy wine growers’ banquet next weekend.

Hôtel Bon-Port in Montreux, Switzerland, molests cars!

On my winter vacation (2 weeks mandatory time off!), we went to the Alps, staying in a few different cities in France and Switzerland. I’ll post more later on some of the things we saw during our trip, but here I wanted to rant a bit about a terrible experience we had at Montreux’s Hôtel Bon-Port.

Minor stuff

We stayed at the Hôtel Bon-Port for four nights, taking day trips around the area. The hotel was relatively cheap and it seemed to be in a decent location. There were some minor issues that I’ll describe first and then a major problem with poor management and customer service that I’ll get to below. The room was mediocre and small. The safe in our room never did work, even though the manager said he was going to fix it. There was no free WiFi. For some reason they made the circa-2000 decision to instead provide a PC for guests by the lobby, and charge 5CHF per half-hour for WiFi in the room. Trust me when I say that providing a computer will never be as cheap for a hotel as just providing free WiFi and it will also mean a significantly worse experience for guests. Most people who need internet have their own devices, so it just doesn’t make sense to do it this way. I used their computer a couple times and it was laggy because of all the software on there. Notably, somebody had installed some sort of internationalization app for one of the Asian languages that I believe was causing problems. Also, even before getting to the stuff below, I knew the manager didn’t really understand hospitality after I heard him yell at some guests for ringing the bell at the desk more than once.

Major stuff

Now to the real issue that brings Hôtel Bon-Port down from a mediocre three stars to a pitiful zero stars: Parking in Switzerland is terrible. I’ll try to post on this in more detail, but basically Swiss cities don’t seem to want visitors because they provide basically no overnight parking spots. This hotel offers underground parking for 15 CHF per night. This seemed like a decent deal considering that there were no other options closer than a 10 minute bus ride. Plus the car would be indoors. We had just paid a bunch of money to get it detailed (washed, waxed, etc.) right before our trip, so it was fairly clean. We thought if we kept it in the garage it could stay that way and be safe from damage.

On our last night we came in late after driving in a bit of snow coming down the mountain. When we got back, only one spot was available, plus another easier spot that said “no parking” but which we knew from previous nights people were sometimes allowed to use. To make my life easier, we chose the no parking spot and gave the keys to the manager in case he needed to move it, as we had also done previously.

Our car after a night at Hôtel Bon-Port our car next to a concrete wall at Hôtel Bon-Port

The next morning, we came down and found the car moved (which was fine) to the other parking spot. We noticed right away that it was a terrible parking job. He had parked it next to a concrete wall such that we had to put it in neutral and push it out before I could get in. If he had pulled it forward just a few more centimeters, it would have been no problem. Before attempting to move it though, we noticed a large white streak across the side of the car. The streak was about one meter long and we really didn’t know what had happened. We immediately informed the employee at the desk and she called the manager. I spoke to him for about 20 seconds before he actually yelled at me and accused me of accusing him of things. I told him very clearly that I wasn’t accusing him of anything, but that I was paying him 15 CHF for parking and I want to know why my car has a big streak on the side. We had no idea at that point what exactly had happened and we were mostly trying to ensure that the paint hadn’t been damaged. It was dark down in the garage and we had not yet pulled it out.

After we got it out of the garage and into the light, we pieced together what had happened. After his awful parking job, he exited the car through the driver’s door and squeezed himself (he’s a big guy) between the car and the wall. He must have rubbed himself all over the car when doing this, rubbing whatever salt residue and dirt there was into the paint. We didn’t find any scratches that we could positively link to this, but any time you do such things it is bad for the paint/wax in the long term. The girl working at the desk agreed that this is probably what happened and she told us that he would email us later in the day. Now it is 5 days later and he didn’t contact us. We see that he billed us the full amount for parking that night, even though our car looked terrible until we got back home and gave it a wash.

Stay away from Hôtel Bon-Port!

Note that I have no general problem with giving my keys to somebody. I used to be a valet at a resort in Scottsdale, so I have parked a lot of very expensive cars (Porsche, Rolls Royce, etc). I took pride in it and I took good care of the cars I drove. So I am fine with somebody else moving my car, but that comes with responsibility. There is no excuse for rubbing oneself all over a customer’s paint job. There is also no excuse for the manager of a hotel to be mad when he is asked to talk to upset customers. The correct move would have been to not charge us for the final night of parking, but this manager was not a big enough man to swallow his pride and admit that he may have accidentally caused this issue. He needs to realize that Hôtel Bon-Port is not a panini joint.

Please don’t stay at Hôtel Bon-Port. I’m sure many people have no problems there, but the moment you do have a problem, the manager yells at you instead of solving it.

India debriefing

riding on an elephant in India

A few weeks ago we went to India for a friend’s wedding. I thought I’d share my thoughts.

The wedding was in Bangalore, for an Indian friend of mine who lives in the United States. Tiffany and I flew there from France and met up with my friend Mike and his girlfriend (all 4 of us pictured above on the elephant). We were only in town for a week, so we didn’t get to see as much of India as we might have otherwise. We spent a couple days in Bangalore for the reception and wedding, and then traveled around the state of Karnataka for a few days.

First of all, the reception and wedding were pretty awesome. We bought some Indian outfits to wear to both. For the evening reception we wore what would be considered more flashy outfits, while for the actual wedding we were told to get something more traditional. Interestingly, we managed to buy everything we needed in just a couple hours in the afternoon the day of the reception. Both the reception and wedding were held at the same venue. The photography setup really surprised us. They had a video camera on a boom over the crowd, plus a few other cameras. As at a sporting event, there were large screens that would switch between the camera feeds. The reception consisted of lots of food for the guests while the bride and groom stood on the stage for three hours as each guest came up and gave gifts and got pictures taken. The wedding ceremony itself was the next morning. During it, they did all sorts of things that I didn’t really understand. The bride and groom would mix some spices or something together, then get up and step on them. Sometimes it looked like the groom was putting something on the jewelry worn by the bride. Sometimes the stage was full of guests to help with the rituals. At one point, we were up on stage and we got to pore water on a coconut that they were holding. Then we had to sprinkle rice on the coconut. I almost grabbed the rice with the wrong hand, but I was quickly corrected by the crowd (pro tip: don’t grab anything with your left hand).

In the afternoon after the wedding, we left to tour Karnataka a bit. It seems most of the tourist sites in that region are temples, so that’s mostly what we saw. We stayed two nights in Mysore and one night in Hassan.

The driving conditions were probably my biggest shock of the week. When we first arrived, there was quite a downpour which I guess was unusual and due to tropical storms in that area of the world. Some of the roads from the airports were pretty flooded, which made driving conditions even worse. Luckily we had skilled drivers, which I guess most Indians are. The traffic was nuts. There was no concept of lanes. People and cattle meandered across the road as they pleased. They use horns and high beams completely differently than we do in the west. The horn means something like “look out, I’m over here,” and the high beams mean something like “I’m coming through.” So basically the roads are a sea of horns. Also they are brazen when passing. It is not uncommon to be on a two-lane rural road, with a car in front of you, a motorcycle oncoming, and the driver decides to pass. The motorcycle will get out of the way just enough that you’ll all fit. Also often we came within meters of hitting oncoming buses during passes. After dark, it gets even more terrifying. People walk in the middle of the road, just as they do during the day. Rickshaws and motorcycles often have no taillights. But one way or another, there aren’t that many accidents. In fact, the cars were in pretty good condition, maybe better than in France.

The driving conditions also made for interesting walking. On some streets in Bangalore, there really are no crosswalks. You just have to meander across traffic. We had an interesting incident doing just that. We needed to cross a multi-lane road and Mike had the idea that we should follow a group of Indians who were also ready to cross. This was, in theory, a good idea. However, when we had almost reached the other side, we heard squealing tires and saw that a motorcyclist was coming toward the group. He apparently had tried to aggressively pass a rickshaw on the right, saw the Indian group we were crossing behind, and hit the brakes, sliding on sand and ultimately going down. The motorcyclist and his passenger were OK. We weren’t in any real danger because the Indian group was blocking for us. However, I did get a nice scrape on my arm, that has not yet completely disappeared, from Mike’s girlfriend grabbing my arm in fear.

We were lucky to have very good, trustworthy drivers for the whole time. The wedding party arranged them for us. They picked us up from the airport, drove us to the shopping street, and brought us to the wedding. Then, one of these drivers also drove us all around the countryside over the next few days, seeing temples and tourist sights. As a westerner (with the exchange rates), everything is extremely cheap in India so it makes a lot of sense to spend the money getting a driver you can trust. India can be a daunting place. It can be dangerous for tourists. But having these drivers made it less of a concern and we were never really afraid for our safety.

So overall it was a great experience. I recommend it enthusiastically. The flights were long and expensive, but everything there (hotel, taxi, food, clothes) was so cheap it kind of made up for it. We’re minimalists on souvenir purchases (and in general), but we did buy a couple scarves for Tiffany and a couple ties and a polo shirt for me. It also seems that they accept US Dollars in some places. I hope to write another post sometime about my experiences traveling India with a nut allergy (there were some problems, but we learned) and perhaps Tiffany will write a bit more about the outfits that we bought.

Filing for German Tax Refund

I just got my German tax refund (from Bremen) and it was shockingly large. I know a lot of foreigners do not bother to file taxes, but it really can be quite easy and it can be well worth it. I had many people tell me not to bother, since it is not required (they always take enough; you never underpay, in my understanding). The circumstances surrounding an expatriate’s stay in Germany differ widely, so I’m sure some people get basically nothing and some get a windfall. But in my case (and Tiffany’s), it was possible to speak to a person at the Finanzamt who told us exactly how to fill out the forms.

In Bremen, there was a man at the  Finanzamt who a fellow researcher at the university recommended. I imagine I could have walked into the office, as I guess Tiffany did in Göttingen, and found somebody to help. The man spoke some English. He looked at my information and pointed at which pieces of information from my forms went into which blanks on the empty form. I went home, completed the form, and came back the next day to submit everything. My bank account information was on one of the forms so my refund came as a direct deposit. Unfortunately, it can take several months to get paid. Mine took about 5 months, I think. But it is a good idea to keep the German bank account open for a while anyway until all of the surprise deposits and withdrawals, due to turning off utilities and such, cease.

This was a quick post, but I just want to implore you to file your taxes if you are living in Germany. It can really pay off. It was well worth the 1-2 hours total that I spent on it. I met a lot of people who told me not to bother filing, but I’m glad I did.

Importing a car to France (and getting the carte grise)

Here’s another how-to post about my experience importing our car to France. As you may have seen in my previous post, we bought the car in Germany and it had German export plates on it. This story took place in Chalon-sur-Saône, so things may differ from town to town.

Step 1- Prove that I don’t owe VAT

The first step was a trip to the finance office to get proof that I did not owe any taxes on the car. In my case, I owed none because I bought the car in Germany. The VAT system confuses me a bit, but basically I guess the car had VAT on it when it was new and since I was going from one EU country to another, it would not be charged a second time. I walked up to the front desk, armed with a translation of “I need to import a car from Germany” on my phone, and was pointed upstairs. I went upstairs, and luckily picked the correct door. The employee inside was quite friendly. I showed her my translation and found that she spoke a little English and a little German, which came in handy in the ensuing conversation. She asked for ID, but that’s when I realized I forgot my passport! Luckily she accepted my German driver’s license. She also wanted to see a document proving my French address. I have found that it is quite common in France to be asked to prove this. Luckily I had my laptop on me so I found something sufficient. She looked at my registration documents from Germany and the purchase contract. I’m not sure if she actually needed both or what information she got from them, but she eventually gave me a one-page document stating that I owed no tax.

Step 2- Safety inspection

The next step was the vehicle safety inspection (contrôle technique). I went by the shop with a coworker and we had to make an appointment for the next day. I returned by myself. The guy spoke no English but he realized at some point that I understand some German. After that we got along fine. The entire appointment only took about 30 minutes. The only thing he commented on was the broken fog light lens, which I knew about but have been putting off fixing. It was not the sort of thing that would fail the inspection though. Luckily he didn’t notice that my reverse light doesn’t work. That is another repair I have been procrastinating, because it will probably be expensive. I think I may not have passed the inspection if he had noticed that, but perhaps he would just think the bulb was blown (it’s not) so maybe he’d just advise me to fix it. I noticed afterward that he had put a sticker on the passenger side of the windshield, I guess just to show the test date. It has the old German license plate number, which I hope is normal.

Step 3- Sous-préfecture for the carte grise

Next I went to the sous-préfecture. This place was a circus. I took number 906 but they were only at around 870. I wasn’t sure I was in the right place because many LEDs on the number display didn’t work so I misread the number at first. I sat across the room, periodically checking the numbers. I waited almost 1.5 hours. The lady at the counter spoke almost no English so I just showed her the relevant papers. She took my folder and rifled through it taking some other papers. She went to the back to check on some things and eventually she kept some papers and told me to come back Monday morning to pay the fee and allegedly get the certificat d’immatriculation (informally “carte grise”). Luckily there was a girl who spoke some English that I was to see on Monday. She was excited to tell me about her travels in the US, but she didn’t seem to know the geography very well.

Step 4- Sous-préfecture part 2

I returned on Monday and didn’t have to take a number this time. I got to just go right up to the counter once there was an opening. After speaking (sort of) to a few employees, I was given all of my papers stapled together and told to go to a window to pay. I then realized they intended to take all of the papers permanently. I was angry that they indiscriminately took so many papers from my folder. It seemed that they weren’t very familiar with the procedure and just took everything that seemed related. The employees defended it saying they must have all of these documents, but they clearly didn’t need them all. For example, one booklet they took was for translating my original German export registration for travels outside the EU. I was told previously that this booklet was only for places like Russia. Many people apparently don’t even have this booklet because I didn’t have one with my second export registration. This was evidence that these guys had no idea what they were doing and they were lying to me about what they needed, because they didn’t really know. The next setback I encountered was that they wouldn’t accept my EC card or my German credit card, even though allegedly they d0 take cards. I had to go to an ATM with my German debit card (for a fee, of course). I returned with cash and they gave me a provisional certificat d’immatriculation. Note that I’m unsure if they always give the provisional one. It seems that they maybe wouldn’t have except I expressed concern that I wouldn’t be able to drive the next day, since they took my German paperwork required to drive on my old plates.

Step 4- Buy plates

The next step was to get French plates. I went to a place recommended by my colleague and, without speaking French, I was able to show him my paperwork and he understood what to do. I just got the cheap aluminum plates, though there were fancier options. After 15 minutes, I got my plates and some rivets that he indicated I needed to use to attach the plates. So this was a problem. I had forgotten that I would need to attach the plates with rivets. I should have gone to a place that would install them for me. This problem would need to be addressed later.

Step 5- Buy car insurance

Next I had to find insurance. I knew nothing about French insurance companies. All I knew was that my credit union was closed on Mondays and I had once heard the name AXA. So AXA it was! I found an office that was open on Monday and I went about teaching my credit union a valuable lesson about capitalism. The employee in the office did speak English. I showed her my letter GEICO stating I had no claims. She didn’t really like it because it didn’t have my policy number or my contract attached. I told her that in America we don’t really have a uniform “no claims bonus” so insisting on my “no claims bonus paperwork” wasn’t helpful. I offered her a copy of my GEICO contract and eventually I convinced her that was the best she was going to get. I only needed 30 days anyway at this point, so I could drive the next day and then further determine my options.

Step 6- Get plates installed

Finally, I had to go to a shop to get the plates riveted as required by French law. I should have gone to this shop in the first place because the price was 11 Euro for installation. The guy who did the install spoke English and he was quite friendly. It turns out they don’t actually have to rivet to the car itself. In my case, they just riveted the plates to the brackets that were already mounted on the car. He ended up letting me go without paying, so that worked out well.

That was it! The car was ready for a drive to the Geneva airport the next morning.