Cars and cable: two things America does badly

Just to balance out the recent happy, sunny weather posts, I do think it’s important to say that not everything we’re discovering about our new city/life has been wonderful. I feel like the ranting about France started after a few months, so I’m right on schedule for annoyances popping up on this side of the ocean! It’s funny that the two things that have frustrated me the most are cars and cable, the two things America is supposed to do well, right? And also the two things I didn’t see as “essential” when we first moved. We made it over two months without a car, and nearly four without a television. Now I really wish we had gone a little longer without both!

Not only was buying a car not so fun, we’re still waiting for the title over a month later, which was supposed to arrive in the mail two weeks after we bought it. I can ask for a copy at the RMV, but that costs 25 dollars I already paid the dealership, since that’s part of the package when you buy a car from them. Every time I try to call to speak to somebody about it, I’m on hold for a long time, and I haven’t had the patience to wait more than 10 minutes for someone to pick up. I’ll keep trying, but I’m almost tempted to be super French and send a registered letter to them informing them of the situation, rather than waste more time on the phone.

Most of my time on the phone in the past weeks not on hold has been with Comcast. They’re the only cable provided who services our building, and I’ve never heard good things about them. So I shouldn’t be too surprised that the hour long phone conversation I had with them led to nowhere. The issue was very simple: I was not told my internet was the basic, super slow kind, when I thought I was paying for the faster speed.

It all started when we moved in and I got the bundled fast internet and cable, but when the guy came to install it and we didn’t have a TV, they didn’t leave the cable box. Everyone told me I could just watch on the app. Which we did for a few days, until it stopped working. When I called, they said they couldn’t sell me cable (even just through the app) if I didn’t have the box, and I couldn’t have a box without a TV. So I said whatever, just internet is fine, and it cost less, so that was nice. The past few months we’ve noticed it was slow, but again, since everyone I know complains about it, I thought that was normal.

There was an offer for cable through the internet without a box, so we finally bought a TV last weekend, but I decided to call first to complain about the speed. No sense getting the TV if the internet was just going to freeze the picture all the time. And that’s when they offered an “upgrade” to the speed I thought I’d been paying for these past 3 months! So my choices were to pay 30 more per month for the high speed internet to start immediately, or 20 dollars more for the cable bundle, but I’d have to wait a week for the box, since they couldn’t upgrade my internet until I installed the box. I picked option three, complain to customer service, since a) I thought I’d already been paying for the faster speed, and b) why is it 20 dollars more now for the same service that cost only 5 dollars more 3 months ago?

The girl was super nice, but after a half hour of back and forth, she couldn’t offer me anything else. She said she put in a ticket so I’d get a call back this week to see if someone higher up could do something. Unsurprisingly, I have had no call, and I’m not really in the mood to call them back quite yet. I can’t decide if I am being unreasonable or not, but I honestly cannot understand why the exact same thing costs so much more 3 months later, just because I’m not a “new” customer anymore. I know 20 dollars versus 5 dollars more per month is “only” a difference of 180 dollars a year, but I’m just so annoyed I feel like complaining anyway, even if it won’t change anything. And after 8 years in France, I can do some pretty good complaining!

In the end, the TV works fine plugged into the modem and isn’t as slow as watching on the computer can be. My husband is a little disappointed he can’t watch the Euro right now like we’d planned, but there are plenty of bars he can go to, so silver lining. Except the bar tabs may also cost 180 dollars or more by the end of the tournament, so maybe it will be cheaper to just suck it up and get the cable!

Boats around Boston

We live right by the train station, so bébé is naturally fascinated by the trains that pass by his window every hour or so (though thankfully not at night since it’s the commuter rail). However last weekend and this weekend we were around boats, so now we’ve added that to the list of things he loves.

My parents were visiting last weekend and the only thing they really wanted to see was the USS Constitution. We got there right as the museum opened and wandered around for a bit before we got in the line to explore the ship. Bébé liked the museum (they have a great kids area with games) but was just a bit too tired to wait in line to go on the “batoo” (bateau). My parents got in a bit later than planned Friday night and he was up much later than his regular bedtime so that we could go out to eat. So my husband took him home for a nap while my parents and I explored the ship.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but it was really cool. You can go down into it, and there are three lower levels you climb down little stairs to get to, so I felt very sailor-y. My husband didn’t realize it was free (as is the museum, though donations are suggested), so he definitely wants to go back with bébé another weekend and check it out. I think they’ll both love it.

This weekend we went to my colleague’s house on Cape Cod for the day, and he has a (much smaller) boat. There were motor troubles, so it was mostly sitting around on the water for an hour and a half, but it was such a sunny, beautiful day, nobody minded. (Except for my colleague, because he was obviously annoyed that his boat wasn’t working!) For the few minutes that the motor was working, bébé LOVED it. He was leaning over the edge looking at the waves, and giggling as the wind whipped through his hair. I made me think of Ariel in The Little Mermaid when she leans over the carriage to watch the horses legs move. (Bébé has also taken to looking under cars in the parking lot, so I think we may have a very mechanical child on our hands . . .)

Also like Ariel, bébé loves being in the water. He will run towards any large body of water at full speed, no matter the weather or what he’s wearing. We were at Pleasant Bay on Cape Cod, so very calm waters, and nothing scarier than a horseshoe crab. We’ll definitely be making another trip out there this summer, especially since I realized while driving down that there are no tolls! We packed a lunch and had breakfast at my colleague’s house, so we just paid for gas (which we didn’t even use that much of, as we happily discovered that our car gets amazing highway mileage.)

It’s been super sunny and nice lately, so I think we’ll be planning a cruise around Boston harbor to take advantage of the weather and encourage bébé’s love of all things boat and water related. Probably won’t be as cheap as the past few weekends, but his birthday is coming up, and how fun would a birthday boat cruise be?

Exploring Boston for free

We discussed getting out of town for Memorial Day weekend, but in the end, we decided on a staycation and explore Boston more. And as an added bonus, nearly everything was free!

Saturday we headed to Castle Island, to the south. Parking is free, but fills up fast. We ended up parking closer to the long path that curves around the bay (Google maps tells me it’s called the Head Island Causeway), rather than in the lot right at the park.

Castle Island 1

It turned into a hot day, but the morning walk along the water was really nice. I really love the sounds and smells of the sea, but I’m not a fan of sand. So while there were beaches around the bay, being on the island was nice, since it was grassy and you could be by the water without getting sandy.

The island is a great place for kids, with a big playground and lots of green space for kids to run around. The tours of Fort Independence are only in the afternoon, so we didn’t stick around to do it. We have learned it’s just best for everyone to not skip nap time.

Castle Island 2

We brought some food to snack on, but will definitely try out Sullivan’s on our next trip. We also skipped the toll roads, and got a great view of the Boston skyline when driving back along 93.

View of Boston

 

So overall cost for the day was just gas, which, at about 15 miles away, probably comes to about a dollar and a half. Not to bad for a little morning trip to the sea.

On the drive back, we passed a park with a spray deck. I have no idea if these exist in France, or even in other cities. Probably. Hopefully. Because they are awesome. It’s literally just a bunch of sprinklers and shoots of water on a flat area for kids to run around in. Since it got up in the 90s on Saturday afternoon, I thought this would be a fun thing for bébé to try. And he definitely loved it. There are a bunch around that I can’t wait to try out this summer.

Sunday we checked out the Arnold Arboretum, in Jamaica Plain. I feel like pictures really don’t do it justice. It’s like, a very pretty, manicured forest, with super wide paths. Bébé went crazy running all over the place, and laying in the grass, and smelling flowers. Arnold Arboretum

Parking is also free, and harder to find as the day goes on, so at least there’s one advantage to having a toddler who wakes up before 6 most days! Again, gas was probably less than two dollars, maybe even less than one, since it’s only about 10 miles away.

Sunday afternoon I headed to Cambridge to pick up a dining room table I found on Craigslist. It was a new area of Cambridge for me, so that was fun to drive around looking at everything.

I found some chairs on Craigslist as well, and picked them up this morning down the street from the Museum of Fine Arts, which was free today. So bébé and I checked it out while my husband took the chairs home, thus saving me the 25 dollars in parking (though paying tolls twice, so 5 dollars plus gas). The museum was not quite as fun as the island or the arboretum, since bébé could’t touch anything. Still, there were a few pieces you could interact with, and he seemed interested in a few paintings and stained glass windows. Mostly though, he liked climbing on the benches and stairs.

And finally, this afternoon I went to a movie for the first time since Christmas. It was in Lexington, a super cute (and historically important) town only 5 miles away that I’m sure we’ll go visit again and again. There’s a bike trail and ice cream shop and all sorts of stuff for kids this summer. I totally have a crush on this town.  Of course the houses start at like, 1.2 million dollars, so it will have to stay a crush, sigh.

Overall, it was a great weekend getting to know the area a little better. Our exploring actually started last weekend with a visit to Walden Pond (free parking with a library pass!), which will be another nice place for bébé to play in the water this summer. The walk around the pond got us thinking about longer hikes we might try, now that he’s slowly getting used to being in the baby carrier on our backs. A good system seems to be to let him run around for a good half hour before putting him in it, so that he’s tired and doesn’t mind being carried.

I didn’t set out to make this a “no-spend” weekend, but having bought the car a little earlier than planned, it’s interesting to see that it’s actually easier to get to cool free stuff than before. So to help offset the higher transportation costs, I like the idea of sticking to cheap and free family activities on the weekends. And honestly, with bébé’s attention span the way it is, there’s no sense in dropping tons of money on doing something he’ll like for about three minutes.

Right now, what he most seems to enjoy is being outside, running around, chatting up strangers, and if possible, getting wet. There are plenty of cool places to do that for free in the area, and I’m happy we got to visit a few this weekend. At work when people mention things, I can finally start to say “Oh yeah, we’ve been there!” and begin adding things to my list of recommendations for visitors. First up is my parents in a few weeks!

 

 

First experience with banks and doctors in the States

Less than two weeks into our new life, and we’ve experienced a few new things. Banks and doctors in the States are, of course, very different than in France, but it’s still a bit jarring to realize that I don’t really know how either work, despite having spent the first two decades of my life here.

 

Banking

I had maintained the savings account that I’ve had since college to pay my student loans, but closed my checking after a few years in France to avoid paying the fees. I opened a new one this summer, and transferred all of our money into it a few weeks before moving, expecting to be able to use the card sent a few months ago to my parents’ house upon arrival . . . Except they forget the “safe place” where they were keeping it!

No big deal, we had our French cards, and we could always go into an actual bank to withdraw money. Also, I had wanted to set up free online checking with another bank once we arrived, so I went ahead and did that. You don’t need a bank card to transfer money into a new account, just the routing and account numbers, which I had. While waiting for the new fee-free check card, I found the other one while cleaning my old room. (For anyone who has taken on the task of cleaning out your room at your parents’ house, you know how simultaneously fun and sad this can be.)

So hurray, I now have two bank cards, two accounts, and two ways to pay for all the things we’ll be needing to buy soon. But my poor husband still had nothing, since he was waiting on his social security number. It has been surprising to me how many things need this, at least coming from France, since they mainly use ID cards to identify people. But it showed up Friday, less than two weeks after arriving, and I went online to add him to my account.

Except the social security number is so new, he couldn’t be added! He needed to call to verify his identity. Reassuring but also mildly frustrating. He handled it like a pro though, since his job at the bank involved talking on the phone with clients all day about banking things and verifying their identities! I’m not sure if this would be a problem for people going in person to set up an account, but it’s something to keep in mind with the current trend of banking moving towards all online and phone services.

 

Doctors

This is not the sexiest secret to share, but I’ve had my ear blocked by wax the past few months, and was managing it with drops the doctor in France gave me. I could have gotten her to do the removal procedure, but every time I went in, I was with bébé, who refuses to let me out of his clutches in the presence of the evil shot-giver. It wasn’t too bad, and in the days leading up to the flight, almost all better, so I figured it would be fine and left my drops in France, leaving precious packing room for more important, non-replacable things.

The first few days here were okay, but every morning it got harder and harder to get rid of the “sleep fuzz” as I call it, so I went and bought drops here, along with a little bulb syringe. It didn’t really help the way I needed, and messing around so much probably just made it worse. The travel health insurance we bought doesn’t cover preexisting conditions, and I wasn’t up for calling all the doctors in town to see who would take me without insurance.

When visiting a daycare here, they mentioned CVS minute clinic as a way to fill out the immunization paperwork, since we don’t have a pediatrician here yet. So when my ear became totally blocked Saturday morning and I could barely hear anymore, I decided to check them out. Of course the one I went to that opened at 9 was exceptionally closed until 11, but at least I was first in line! It took about 30 minutes once it opened to sign myself in on the computer, wait a few more minutes to be called, and get the procedure.

It cost 89 dollars, which would make most people in France gasp in horror, but if you’ve ever had a blocked ear, you know you’d gladly pay much more to be able to hear normally again! I feel silly for not finding the time to do it in France before I left, but at least this gave me an idea of the kind of medical care available here. I know one clinic is not indicative of everywhere, but for a consultation or vaccine or short procedure like “cerumen removal”, it’s good to know there’s something available 7 days a week that doesn’t cost hundreds of dollars. And if it is a sudden illness, the travel insurance does cover one doctor’s visit, so it might even be “free”.

Three weeks of (almost) no spending

These first three weeks of No Spend September haven’t gone quite as well as I’d hoped, though I did manage to get in a few fun free things (yay European Heritage Days!). It’s been interesting to see what I justify as “needing” and will try to adjust my mindset accordingly.

So far, bringing my lunch to work has worked out really well. However, the intern we had all summer left, and someone new arrived in the team, and both events meant team lunches. I still had some lunch tickets left from August that I used, so I think I’ll still be able to save all of September’s for groceries.

I went out to bars twice this month, once for the departing intern, and once for my company’s monthly happy hour. I suppose I didn’t really need to go for the intern, since we had the team lunch, but I did order a cheaper option rather than my usual cocktail. The company happy hour has a deal with the bar that gets us 2 drinks “free” so in theory that was a no spend evening. Except I needed to use the bathroom in the train station before going home, and it cost 1.10€ which is a little ridiculous, to be honest. Most are 50 cents. So next time, definitely going at the bar, even if I don’t really need to.

I also bought a candy bar at the train station, since the happy hour snacks weren’t quite as hearty as I expected. I need to start keeping homemade snacks in my purse like when I was pregnant, since I also bought a few candy bars at the machines at work. I probably shouldn’t keep cash on me at all, since I’ll spend it if I have it, but it feels dangerous to have nothing at all, in case of an emergency. For example, once the trains were all canceled because of an accident, so I had to take the bus, and it’s 5 euros. What if I hadn’t had that money in my wallet? I would have stopped at an ATM, missed the first bus, gotten home even later, which is not exactly a disaster . . . But I can easily imagine a situation where it could be (usually involving bébé).

Speaking of bébé, he has cost the most this month, since I bought tons of clothes for him. Which is justifiable, but could definitely have been put off until next month. He’s growing, but not that fast! I was picking up groceries, and there’s a new store nearby, so I thought I’d just take a quick look, and suddenly it was 100+ euros later . . .  I got rid of what doesn’t fit anymore last weekend, so I guess it seemed like his drawers were a little empty and I panicked.

Kids cost money, but not always in the way you think. The need for abundance is much stronger now that he’s here. Before, if there was no food in the fridge, no big deal, we’d order pizza. Now, if there aren’t at least five extra containers of applesauce sitting on the counter, we’re convinced he’ll starve. The same idea for his clothes. He has more than enough, but he goes through at least two outfits a day, so the drawers are quickly empty and we start to worry he’ll go out in the cold in just his diaper. I know it’s a normal, if somewhat illogical, reaction, and while he’s young I don’t think it’s a huge deal. Once he starts wanting things and asking for things, hopefully I’ll be able to say no. So perhaps I need to try a little harder now, while he’s still young, to get into the habit. First step: just like grocery shopping, always go into a baby store with a list and stick to it!

Planning is really the key. Knowing how I acted this month should help me plan better for the next few months.

No spend September

After a great month that really felt like “summer” for the first time in many years (in part due to the excellent, un-Lorraine like weather) it’s now time to get serious as we head into Fall.

My obsession this summer has been budget/frugal blogs. We don’t have tons of debt, but we do have some projects in the works, and I love learning about techniques to save and spend that will help those projects along.

I decided to do a “no spend September” in order to detox a little from all the fun we had in August, and to jump start a big project that’s on the horizon (more details soon!!).

I semi-prepared, by buying a few things I’ll “need” this month (facewash! A girl’s gotta stay clean!), but I also already started a list of things that I want to buy in October. I’m sure I’ll be adding a lot more to that list as the days go by . . .

I told my husband I want to do this, and he doesn’t have to participate, but he’s not allowed to buy me something I tell him I want, since that would obviously be cheating. I have a tendency to buy Kindle books quite frequently, and I have plenty to reread this month. I haven’t really bought clothes since bébé was born, and I went through what I do have and donated a bunch during my time off, so now my closets seem empty . . . Even though I know I don’t really “need” anything, it’s hard to see my colleagues coming back from their lunch breaks with all sorts of cute things. I don’t wear tons of makeup, but I do like to try various facial masks/cleansers, so a Sephora-free month will definitely help keep my bank account happy.

We have a general food budget that I’m going to try to stick to a little better, and even trim if possible. I get lunch tickets from work but I really want to try and bring my lunch every day. It would mean 150 euros we could use for groceries and we could do something else with that money. I made a meal plan for the week, including breakfast and lunch, so that should help. Not going into town at lunch will also help me avoid the stores!

We’ve already been paying attention to our budget this year because of my husband’s part-time parental leave, but I figure trying just a little bit harder this month will get me into even better (no) spending habits that will help us save even more once he goes back full time in October. Wish me luck!

Why I keep every paper ever

I got a letter from my complementary health insurance asking for an updated certificate from the national health insurance (the CPAM for me). I thought it might have to do with the pregnancy, since certain things are reimbursed at 100%, it means less for the complementary insurance to pay. (They already don’t pay very much to begin with: because of specific local laws for those living in Alsace-Moselle, the CPAM pays 90% for most things, rather than just 70% like the rest of France.)

However, it turns out the last certificate they had was from my student days, in 2011! Apparently I have not been getting reimbursed for everything I could have for the past three years. I go to the doctor maybe twice a year, so I didn’t really notice the missing 3 euros, but still, a nice surprise. I just have to give them the papers that the CPAM sends me with the details of what they paid.

I have an online account, but there’s only the past 6 months of payments, and the complementary insurance will back pay up to two years. Which is why I’m glad I keep every paper I ever get and file things in various large folders with labels like “Bank stuff” “Health stuff” and “Tax stuff” (all with a semi-chronological organization). I definitely try to keep track of paperwork very well here, just in case my residency card depends on showing a payslip from 2008 or a bank statement from 2010 for some reason. However, my recent renewal was one of the easiest ever actually, and I came home without needing half the papers I brought “just in case.”

In the end, I’ll probably only get about 15 euros, but that’s enough for yet another cute baby outfit! And when you combine paperwork organization and nesting, you get yet another folder full of receipts for baby clothes, just in case he comes out gigantic and half the things I bought don’t even fit . . .

Bank card limits in France

My nesting instinct hasn’t quite kicked in yet (the freezer remains mostly empty and the closets horribly disorganized) but my shopping definitely seems to have picked up a bit this month. So I’ve been having lots of fun, but in the back of my head, I have to keep in mind the spending limits on my bank card.

Since I moved to France right after college, I’m not sure how different things are here, but I know my dad was upset recently that his free checking accounting was no longer free. I’ve been paying a few euros a month since the very first month for my account here, so I couldn’t really sympathize with him. I do know that what I pay is because I have a debit card; the joint account with my husband only has a checkbook so we don’t pay anything for it.

In addition to the monthly fee, there are limits on how much I can withdraw each week, and how much I can spend in a month using the card (there are no limits to withdrawing at the bank, other than the amount actually in the account!). When I first arrived in France, these limits were pretty low, which wasn’t a big deal, since I didn’t make that much. And it’s nice to know that if my card gets stolen and someone tries to buy or withdraw a lot, they won’t be able to. Recently I asked my banker to increase the limits, since my work situation is stable, but I still need to keep that number in my mind when buying big ticket items over the next few weeks.

Both my husband and I are at Société Générale now, but before he was at Crédit Mutuel, and I’m not sure if he had the same limits. I remember the first time we tried to buy plane tickets with his new card, and we couldn’t, because he was close to the monthly limit, and he swore he’d never had one at his old bank. It could just be that he had never reached his limit before, so never knew what it was.

One nice thing is that there re no fees when withdrawing from an ATM at another bank, with, of course, a weekly limit. This is something I loved when I first got here, since there was nothing more annoying to me in the states than paying an extra 2 dollars when I didn’t use my bank’s ATM. 2 dollars is a lot to a college student on minimum wage! That’s like, enough for an essential studying snack or bus fare to the mall.

I’ve been looking into purely online banking for a while, but I’ve been at the same bank since I first got here, and with the same banker for over 4 years. He knows us, knows our goals, and gives good advice. We also manage to get enough “new” services every year that we help him meet his sales quota without him having to call and badger us every few months. So if we called him and asked to up the limit so we can buy a crib, he’d do it, no problem. I don’t feel like I can’t spend my own money how I want to, it just takes a bit more planning. Which, when dealing with budgets, is probably not such a bad thing.

I’ve gotten used to my bank card limits in France just like I’ve gotten used to everything being closed on Sundays and after 7pm. Sure, a part of me feels like this is somehow denying me my freedom of choice, but at the same time, it’s made me more organized and conscious of how I spend my money (and time).