samedi, juillet 07, 2007

French Bureaucracy: How to close a bank account

OK, while I'm no longer in Paris, I had an amusing/frustrating experience closing my bank account in France that probably merits a blog post. And all the more so because of my encounter with Chicago bureaucracy on Thursday.


Random Receptionist: Can I help you?

Me: Yes, I'd like to close my bank account.

RR: Alright, then, you'll have to make an appointment.

Me: Really? To close my account? I can't just do it?

RR: No. You'll have to make an appointment with the consultant that has been assigned to your bank account.

Me: I don't even know who that is.

RR: We'll have to look it up then.

Me: When is your earliest availability?

RR: Your consultant is available Friday morning at 9am.

Me: Don't you have anything later in the day? I have my departure party the night before.

RR: No.

Me: But what about all that empty space on the calendar? It looks like he's available around 3pm as well.

RR: (sigh) I suppose so. 3pm it is. Here's your appointment card.

[At this point, she takes a blank index card with the bank's logo and writes "Friday, June 29th at 15h00" in longhand. Because apparently I'm too retarded to remember a meeting time.]

Friday, 3pm

Me: Hi, I'm here to close my bank account.

M. Khellaf: Ah yes, you must be Monsieur Garcia. Please sit down. (pause) So you want to close your bank account?

Me: Um, yes.

K.: And your reason for closing the account?

Me: I'm leaving France.

K.: For good?

Me: Yes.

K.: Will you be returning to France later?

Me: No.

K.: Will you be keeping another bank account?

Me: No.

K.: Will you still have an address in France?

Me: No. I'm leaving France. To North America. Forever.

K.: Oh, I see. Well, you'll need to remove all the funds before I close it. Here, take your bank card and walk to the ATM around the corner and take out all your money. You have 446€, so take out 440€ from the machine.

Me: Really? Um, OK...

[5 minutes later...]

Me: So, it all came out in 10€ bills. All 440€'s worth.

K.: Oh, I suppose that they haven't restocked the ATM machines yet. Sorry about that.

Me: So can you exchange these for larger bills?

K.: Nope. We don't have cash here.

Me: Really?

K.: Yes.

Me: No cash?

K.: No.

Me: At a bank?

K.: Well, some branches keep a cash teller, but most do not.

Me: Oh.

K.: So your bank account is closed.

Me: And the remaining 6€?

K.: Well, as I said, we don't have a cash teller here, so we can't give you the 6€. And 4€ of that will go towards bank fees for this transaction. If you had another account in France we could wire the remaining money to your other account. We could always wire the money to an international bank account...

Me: Yes?

K.: ...but there is a 16€ fee.

Me: Oh.


Me:'ll be keeping my remaining money?

K.: Yes.

Me: Oh. Well...I guess I'm done here.

K.: Thank you very much for coming. Have a lovely day.

Me: Thank y...well, um...goodbye.

vendredi, juillet 06, 2007

Apartment-Hunting for SpeedFreaks

After driving uptown to one of the Emissions Testing facilities (see yesterday's post for that)--and my car passed--I headed over to the Lakeview offices of an apartment-finding agency called Apartment People. I had heard of this agency through friends who swore by it, so I decided to give it a try. The concept is simple: this agency helps you search through their own listings of apartments, helps you pick out 4 or 5 potential apartments, shows you all of these apartments, and then helps you fill out the paperwork for the apartment of your choice. Rather than charge a commission, they take your first month's rent as their payment, which they take from the landlord, who pays for the service of having his/her apartment filled ASAP.

So I headed into their offices and filled out a form, with my basic contact information, my price range, and my preferences for location and amenities. I hadn't made an appointment in advance, so I left them my cell phone number and headed off for lunch while they tried to find me a spot during the day to take me. One of the only downsides of this whole experience was the wait. I walked up and down Broadway, had lunch at Melrose's Restaurant, and wandered back to the offices without any news from them. It was almost two whole hours before I got a call from someone. By then, I was waiting in their lobby, so I headed right upstairs and met one of their representatives.

This guy sat me down at a cubicle/desk in a large room that appeared to be a sort of shared office, asked me for clarifications about my price range and neighborhoods, and then walked off. A few minutes later, a woman came by and introduced herself as Lisa, my apartment-finding expert.

She used the computer sitting on the desk to start a series of rapid-fire searches in their database of available apartments. As she quizzed me on my likes and dislikes, deal-breakers and daily routine, she brought up listings and showed them to me. What was really useful about this whole encounter was that she seemed to know a lot of these buildings already and/or knew the property management company, so she would pipe in with "This building has a huge courtyard," or "These guys keep the place in great shape," or even "They're putting in new hardwood floors next month."

After picking out 4 or 5 potential places, she went to the "key room" to get keys for the buildings. Yes, you read that right. Apartment People has an arrangement with these landlords that they give them a copy of keys to the apartment once the apartment has become vacant. Since almost all of the apartments I was looking at were already vacant and available to move in right away, she was able to take me directly into each apartment building, without having to wait for the landlord / superintendent to let us in and show us around.

As we were zipping all around the Uptown and Wrigleyville area, Lisa chatted with me about food and nightlife and other such stuff. As it turns out, she knew of a fancy imported cheese store down the street from her offices, so once we were done looking at all the apartments, we stopped in there to buy a few cheeses. I was thrilled to discover that you CAN get raw milk cheese in Illinois, but only if it has been aged more than 60 days. This means that many of the soft, creamy and smelly cheeses aren't available with raw milk, but many of the harder ones like comté, tomme de chèvre and manchego were all available. Yay!

I had a pretty easy time deciding on apartments, since one of them was less expensive, better-located and better-maintained than all the others. There's even built-in cabinetry in the bedroom! I won't have to buy a dresser, after all. We got back to the offices and Lisa went off to get the paperwork for my application to rent the apartment. After a few minutes of filling out paperwork and getting everything ready, I paid the first month's rent (in the form of a commission to Apartment People) and headed home. Later that night, I faxed a bunch of my paystubs and scholarship stuff to them so that they could include it in my application.

Cross your fingers! I really liked the place that I decided on, so I'm waiting for the results with baited breath. If I get it, I'll take a bunch of pictures of the interior and post them on here for everyone to see. I have all sorts of plans for painting!

P.S. I went on (and consumer rating site) and noticed that there are a slew of negative reviews for Apartment People. From the descriptions and narratives being left on there, it sounds like I lucked out with the only honest broker in the building. Here's hoping the rest of the deal goes through well!

Hot Parking Action in Chicago

Driving around Chicago today, I've been re-encountering the problem of finding parking in this city. On the one hand, nearly every street has street parking available, even downtown. On the other hand, there is a byzantine set of rules as to when and where you can and can't park, which makes parking a sort of chess game and blood sport at the same time.

I recall, during my first two years in Chicago, how I coveted the parking spot directly in front of my apartment building. It was on a busy street, so I usually had to park 2 or 3 blocks away.

I coveted a good parking spot so much, I eventually started using sexual terminology to discuss it, which produced conversations such as this one between me and my friend Erika:

"Do you see that spot right in front of my building? That is a hot spot."

"Ooooh, yeah! That spot is fucking sexy."

"That spot is a HOT SLUT."

This, my friends, is what we have come to in Chicago. Please send parking.

jeudi, juillet 05, 2007

Welcome back to Chicago, bitch

Ah yes, Chicago saved it's warmest welcome for me this morning.

When I got up and headed out to my car in the morning to check on it, there was a ticket for having expired plates (my car had been in Canada all year and I had been in Paris, so I hadn't been able to renew the sticker). In the time it took me to walk down 53rd street for some toiletries and such, there was another ticket waiting for me. That's already $100 in tickets. And the best part about it was that the two tickets were only hours apart and for the same violation. In other words, a certain police officer saw the ticket already stuck on my passenger side window, wrote an identical one, and pasted it ON TOP of the previous one. Thanks, guys. The first one was justified, but the second one was just malicious.

You know, I realize now that there are differences between the bureaucracy I witnessed in Paris, and the bureaucracy that exists in Chicago. In Paris, everything is done in triplicate, you have to make an appointment for tasks that would normally be a drop-in service elsewhere, you need a piece of stamped and laminated paper for nearly everything, every organization you pass through from housing to work to play demands a set of mug-shot photos that they will turn into yet another ID card. Paris has turned bureaucracy into a fine art. Chicago, on the other hand, has a layer of red tape that is less thick and sometimes faster, but it is malicious. Paris's bureaucracy seems to strive toward some ideal of Perfect Efficiency and Organization, while Chicago just wants to hurt you. Paris is ubiquitous and surveillant, while Chicago is arbitrary and punitive.

Needless to say, I immediately headed off to the nearest DMV and got in line to renew my plates. God knows how many thousands of dollars in tickets they would've given me if I left my car there a minute longer.

And then, to top it off, I had another round in the City of Chicago Citizen Sodomizer when I got back from dinner with Tim and Erin. Tim had been receiving my mail for the past month or so, and he also had all of the mail that Erika had been collecting for me during the year. Among the mail that had just recently arrived was a letter from the Secretary of State, declaring that my vehicle registration would be suspended as of July 24th, because I had failed to take an emissions test. During the 2006 X-mas break, I had actually sent in a form that should've allowed me to delay my emissions test, since I was out of the country and my vehicle was also not in Chicago. Apparently, that didn't go through. Anyway, I clearly need to take care of that emissions test tomorrow...

mercredi, juillet 04, 2007

Chicago and the 4th of July

I didn't get out of London at quite the time that I had hoped. I had worked out at Carla's gym on Monday and overdid it; while my muscles weren't all that fatigued, my kidneys were apparently rather unhappy with the extra work with the byproducts of fat burning. So I spent some time feeling feverish and a bit delirious, and my this morning I was mostly recovered but still rather tired and in pain. I slowly loaded my car and packed up my stuff, and by approx 11h30, I was ready to hit the road.

The drive was pretty uneventful, and the last of the symptoms from my renal overload dissipated over time, but things were delayed for almost an hour at the border. You see, there is this document (an I-94) that foreigners with student visas must fill out and get processed at their port of entry into the United States. Technically, you're supposed to surrender this document when you leave the states, and get a new one the next time you arrive. Canadians have enjoyed an exemption from this practise, since we cross the Canada-US border far more frequently than folks from other parts of the world. However, if you travel beyond Canada, even if you're Canadian, you have to give up your I-94 and get a new one upon returning.

All of this adds up to me having to pull over and get my I-94 at the Sarnia/Port Huron border (since I had been in France). While the folks in the immigration processing centre were mostly quite nice and helpful, today was apparently Complicated Immigration day, because there were easily 15 people in front of me, and they each had a complicated immigration issue that required a great deal of time to resolve. So it took me more than an hour to get a little white stub stapled into my passport. Hooray.

I arrived in Chicago around 18h30, rolling down the streets of Hyde Park and over to Steve and (previously) Peter's place. Peter had moved out a few days before, and I'm sub-letting his room while I find my own place. There was a 4th of July BBQ going on at their place, so I unloaded my crap quickly into Peter's old room, said hello to Steve's cat, and then headed back out onto the deck and grabbed a beer.

By about 21h00, Greg and his Very Special Friend (sorry, I forgot her name) decided to head out to the point (Promontory Point) to watch the fireworks over Navy Pier. Feeling in the mood to celebrate my return to Chicago, I tagged along with them. We found a choice spot on some rocks looking to Navy Pier, and then amused ourselves by making fun of the ghetto-ass fireworks that the people around us were trying to set off. It's a wonder that nobody lost a hand in the process. If you bought your fireworks at Wal-Mart, don't be surprised when it fizzles for a while and then sets a bush on fire.

Anyway, the "official" fireworks were lovely and we had a nice walk back through Hyde Park, but I was beginning to feel the fatigue from a day of driving. I stayed up with Steve and Greg and a few other folks, but I eventually gave in around 1h00 and headed to bed. Despite being tired, I'm really excited to be back in Chicago.