Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Auto-entrepreneur stuff: The next step

As I mentioned in my last post about becoming an auto-entrepreneur, the first thing that happens is you get flooded with mail, most of which I had no idea what to do with, so I put it off since I was busy with Christmas and New Years and going back to work and travelling to York and all the rest of it. Not to mention actually starting the work I created the business to do! But I vowed to tackle it this weekend, so here are some more handy hints.

One of the more confusing pieces of mail I got was to do with the AGIRC and ARRCO pension schemes. I actually got more or less the same form sent to me by two companies, Humanis and Reunica, although I see from looking online you might get them from different places, depending on where you are in France. One of my biggest stumbling blocks looking at this form was that is says "Choice of institutions" and there are two (AGIRC and ARRCO) but no boxes to tick or clear instructions to circle or cross out one of the choices, so I didn't know what to do with the form. I found a very helpful article online about this that explains these organisations aren't actually for YOUR pension - you selected a complementary provider at the time of creating your enterprise. They are for your future employees - but you still have to fill out the form whether you have employees or not. The reason there are two of them, is that "salariés" get one organisation, and "cadres" get another. If you don't have employees of any type, don't worry, you don't have to pay anything. That article I linked to does a pretty good job of explaining the basics on how to complete the form.

This form has to be completed within 3 months of creating your enterprise - I know this because I've already got a nagging letter in the post for not doing it. I assume I only have to send the form back to one of the (private) companies that has contacted me. Since I'm not planning on having any employees, I just picked the one with the easier form.

The second thing I got a lot of (apart from stuff from supermarkets and phone companies wanting my business) was offers of mutuelles - complementary health insurance. However, all of them seemed to be aimed at my imaginary employees, rather than myself, so I just chucked all that. Once I figured out what various stuff was there was actually a lot, including duplicates of the form I just mentioned, I could just throw away. And then there was also a lot of stuff like the official certificates of creating my business and registering it with different agencies that I just needed to file.

After all of that, the only thing left that really needed dealing with was the form to declare your income (having chosen the "régime micro-social simplifié" when you created the enterprise). The form actually looks pretty straightforward, and it comes with an explanatory page, but it also says you can do it online, which seems easier to me, so I went on www.lautoentrepreneur.fr to sign up for this. In typical fashion, you sign up and then you have to print out a form and send it in. I thought I would be able to save the PDF document it says it will create and print it out at work, but there is no option to save it. So when I logged back in at work, I couldn't find the form again at first, but eventually I found it by going to 'Le compte de votre établissement -> Gérer les inscriptions' then in the new menu 'Vos coordonnées bancaires pour télérégler vos cotisations d'auto-entrepreneur' then next to your bank details it has 'Afficher le formulaire d'adhésion'. The window with the form wouldn't open in Firefox, but it is fine in Chrome.

Then, presumably once you mail this form in to them, they activate your registration on the site so you can pay your taxes online. I'm mostly telling you this so that no-one thinks they can wait till the last minute to pay online. You have to declare every trimester, whether you make money or not. I had the dates on a piece of paper somewhere but I must have filed it, so I can only say the first trimester ends on the 30/04/12. Presumably the next is 4 months after that, then 4 months after that.

Oh hey - most importantly - I got paid! I am probably about halfway through doing the actual work. I'm a bit worried about how it will go because it depends on people emailing me back. It's not my problem if they don't, but if we do a second round of emails I can see me getting up to my hour limit (I think it worked out at only 19 hours or something) really quickly because it really takes quite a lot of time, even though it's a boring and simple task. Anyway, as I said I would, I've put the money in my savings, so I'm not tempted to fritter it away before the taxman's been paid and I've even finished the work!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Cheesewatch - Etorki and Tomme Noire des Pyrenees

It's been ages since I did a cheesewatch - my very irregular reports on trying new cheese. Mostly because I often fail to try new cheeses. I came across Morbier recently and it's become a new favourite, but often I fall back on the tried and true or just don't buy cheeses for snacking unless I'm having people over or something. So I decided today that I would take advantage of being in France and try something new, and I selected Etorki because it was on sale and a Tomme Noire des Pyrenees just because it was reasonably cheap. By chance, they both come from around the same region.

The Etorki is a Basque sheep's milk cheese that looks much like a big Port Salut or Saint Paulin, with the same sort of rind plus semi-soft inside. It has a pleasant creamy texture and a good flavour without being especially strong. It actually reminds me of sort of a medium cheddar flavour, but with a completely different texture. Quite nice! However, because it is so creamy, a little goes a long way - you probably won't want to sit there eating the whole block (not altogether a bad thing!) It's not an AOC cheese, so you could theoretically make Etorki anywhere, although it's definitely marketed as a Basque cheese and my sample, at least, was produced in the region.

The Tomme, on the other hand, is a cow's milk cheese. I've had Tomme from the Nord-Pas-de-Calais before, when we toured a farm. As far as I remember (kind of traumatised by the video we watched featuring cow birth - or was it a sheep birth? We went to a cow and a sheep farm, so I forget) that was a very hard cheese. This one has a black rind (hence the name) and is softer than the Etorki, although still with approximately the same sort of texture. It has quite an unusual flavour, stronger and more distinctive than the Etorki with a bit of a sour cottage-cheese type aftertaste. I can imagine some people not liking it, but I do. I like cottage cheese too, for that matter (which they don't seem to sell in France? Fromage fouette is an addictive alternative though!) This one is AOC.

So there you go - two cheeses, two tasty new experiences!

Friday, January 27, 2012


I'm always learning new things about my adopted home. Lately I've been watching the (very addictive) Engrenages/Spiral, a French cop show which, as well as being very entertaining, has been filling me in on how the French justice system works (hopefully in a way that is at least vaguely in line with reality). And today, I was reading Le Monde's commentary on presidential candidate François Hollande's proposal to make the famous 1905 law on the separation of Church and State in France (the wellspring for all those recent laws and debates on stuff like wearing the veil in public) part of the French Constitution. I was very surprised to read:

En Alsace-Moselle... le concordat napoléonien, survivance anachronique, oblige les contribuables athées à payer les salaires des prêtres par le truchement de l'impôt.

In Alsace-Moselle the Concordat of 1801, an anachronistic survival, obliges atheist taxpayers to pay priests' salaries via their taxes.

Wow, really? Apparently so - in this region, priests (and rabbis, pastors etc.) of the Jewish, Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist persuasion receive a state salary, as Class A bureaucrats! This is based on the fact that Alsace-Moselle wasn't part of France when the 1905 law was passed. But surely someone could have changed the situation since? Is there a huge priest-paying lobby in the area? Surely there's got to be a lot of people, whether religious or not, who would agree that non-Christians/Jews shouldn't be obligated to pay the salaries of religious figures, and that it should still be at the discretion of even believers.

Of course, tax breaks for organised religions are not uncommon all over the world, including (and correct me if I'm wrong) the US and NZ, but it surprises me that France, supposed bastion of secularism, goes a step further (at least in one region) by actually directly paying the priests. I don't want to get into an argument with anyone over the benefits of religion to society or anything along those lines - I'm certainly not trying to have a go at religion in general, I just was shocked to find this information out! I have mixed feelings about the law banning the full veil in public, as well as some other stuff which is usually defended under the "we are a secular society" heading, but I feel like the continued existence of this tax system in Alsace-Moselle really undermines the legitimacy of such laws (whether or not you agree with them). Surely France should be cleaning house on the Alsace-Moselle law before turning around and claiming that they're oh so secular? If I were a Muslim woman living in Alsace-Moselle, pretty sure I'd be either wearing my veil until they got rid of that law, or refusing to pay my taxes. (Or probably neither, since I don't know if I'm really the "political firebrand" type, but it's easy to pretend when one's a hypothetical Alsace-living, veil-wearing Muslim woman on the internet.)

I must say I wouldn't mind though if they made Good Friday a public holiday for the whole of France, instead of just for Alsace and Lorraine!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Snapshots from York

The rest of my time in York was spent in much the same way - a little bit of idle sightseeing combined with a lot of time in the pub. Very pleasant! I had to get up at 4.45 on Saturday morning, which luckily wasn't as painful as it might have been, since I hadn't been sleeping well and had been waking up early anyway. Everything went smoothly getting my two trains and plane, and I had packed so impressively light coming over that I managed to take back an extra two books, four cans of cider, a bottle of bitters for a friend, two cheddar cheeses, two packets of bacon, chocolate and the cardi I bought, and still be under the weight limit! Hurrah! I had time for a nap before having some birthday drinks for a friend of mine - I would otherwise probably have taken it easy after getting up so early, but couldn't really say no on someone's birthday!

New dress I got in the sales at Christmas

We had some birthday gin - this is special miner's gin from Wallonia (French-speaking Belgium), drunk out of cute little shot glasses with a handle! You're meant to sip it rather than shoot it, which to be honest is a little bit much for my tastes, however it did seem quite smooth and not so bitter by gin standards. I'll still have my next one with lime though, thanks!

York Minster

The memorial to the Boer War echoes the form of the Minster towers

The side of the Minster, with a Roman column in the foreground

The ruins of St Mary's Abbey, destroyed under Henry VIII

A shrine to St Margaret of Clitheroe, who lived in this house (white one) and was a Catholic martyr at the time of the Reformation.

Who thought this was a good name?

I can only assume the sausage-loving slebs work it off afterwards at Flabelos

Micklegate Bar. Confusingly, 'gate' means street, and 'bar' means gate (mickle means great). This was the traditional ceremonial entrance of monarchs to the city, and also a place where traitors' heads were displayed, including Hotspur's of Shakespearian fame!

Me on my walk around the walls. New coat!

On Friday morning, I went on a free 2-hour walking tour of the city. There was only one other couple on the tour, which was good. One of the advantages of travelling in winter! The weather was definitely colder and damper than the previous days, however the rain mostly stayed away until the afternoon, luckily. I was fretting the whole way round because even though it was a free tour by the society of voluntary guides (or something like that), I was expecting to give the guide a tip. Which would be fine, except for the small problem that I only had about a pound in cash on me. I was running slightly late getting there, and couldn't find an ATM, so I was hoping I might see one on the tour and just dash off for a sec, but no such luck. So when the tour came to an end, I was standing there cringing wondering whether to give him the pound or ask him where an ATM was, but to my surprise he just said "well, that's the end of the tour" and we all said thank you and then the next second he had disappeared! So it really was a free tour! Here's some of the things we saw:

The house where King Charles I spent his last night of freedom during the Civil War before fleeing and being captured by the Scots

A pretty half-timbered house. The guide told us that in the Middle Ages the daub (I think the white bit's the daub, yes?) would have been painted multicoloured - the black and white aesthetic is apparently a Victorian thing

The walls up to the parapet are Roman, and the rest are medieval. The red line of bricks is a characteristic Roman technique for making sure the wall's level. He also explained that the properly-preserved parts of the medieval walls had very narrow parapets, precisely to prevent those swashbuckling scenes you see in the movies where, if someone does manage to scale the walls, they suddenly have room to leap over and fight the defenders.

The smallest window in York, on King's Manor. Apparently formerly a window for a loo. He was great for pointing out these little things you would otherwise miss - some others included little owls and cats on many buildings, brackets which are used to periodically survey whether or not houses might be sinking or otherwise falling apart, and posts or boulders on the sides of houses to stop carriages coming through too close to the overhanging medieval upper stories and hitting them. He kept telling us, "In York, you have to keep looking up", which of course is completely foreign to someone living in France, where the mantra is, "You have to keep looking down, or you'll step in dog poo any minute now".

The doorway to King's Manor, with Charles I's coat of arms above it. He stayed here for several weeks.

Monk Bar. Legend has it the statues on the top will come alive and throw stones down on any attackers, but he pointed out that they don't have a great track record when it comes to actually pitching in.

An old church filled with unusual box pews, where half the congregation would be sitting with their backs to the altar and the priest.

The Holy Trinity church, which interestingly enough was once controlled by the Abbey of Marmoutier, which is just across the Loire from Tours, had a great exhibition on life in a medieval monastery. My favourite part was the illustrations from a bestiary produced by the monks:

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Greetings from sunny (no, really) York!

I know I had only been back in France (and at work) for a couple of weeks, but I have already taken a trip back to the north of England on Business of Mystery (I call it that, a la Chief Wiggum, so you won't be curious as to what I'm doing up here).

I travelled up on Tuesday - my flight wasn't until 2.10, so I had plenty of time in the morning to pack and clean the flat. Plenty of time, that is, until I nudged the cardboard box graveyard that occupies the entire east wing (I like to call it a wing to make it sound more like a stately house and less like an irregularly-shaped one-bedroom attic apartment) of my flat. And then HORROR! Behind the cardboard box graveyard, there is a happy little colony of mould. And not just a little spot or two of mould. This is an aggressive colony of green (complemented with the occasional spot of bright pink - wtf) mould growing over the ENTIRE WALL behind the cardboard box graveyard. You may ask how I missed an entire wall's worth of mould - I do clean, honestly. Just not behind the cardboard box graveyard, the centrepiece of which is the IKEA box that my fold-out couch came in. So yeah, when you have a box that's as big as a whole couch, you're talking serious wall-coverage here. I also think it's of relatively recent vintage, based on the fact that I haven't seen it before, it's been rather damp in the apartment of late (fostered by the constantly-filled racks of drying clothes I leave about the place) and the fact that - THANK GOD - *most* of the mould came off quite easily. Luckily, turns out that painted wallpaper can be scrubbed clean with relative ease. However, there remained about 10% stainage on the wall, especially those weird bright-pink spots, which need to be dealt with when I get back. I'm hoping either to find some sort of super product or to discover that an extra bit of elbow grease will do the trick. Because otherwise, feckballs. Don't tell the landlord, but Bob has already been doing his best to ruin the wallpaper with his sharp little claws, I don't need an entire mould colony jazzing up the place. Unless maybe I can sell it as a modern art installation? What do you think my chances are?

Anyway, enough wittering about Crisis Mould. I set out for the airport in good time, but still managed to miss the bus due to the fact that I was where the bus was supposed to be, and then it just drove right past without stopping. I talked to the woman in the bus place and she suggested this might have been because there was someone else in the appointed bus parking spot, but there was NOT. So I had to take a taxi to the airport, which luckily wasn't too traumatic, since the airport is nice and close and it costs 15 euros, as opposed to 5 for the bus. Plus I had a nice chat with the taxi driver and got to feel all smug about my French chatting abilities (some days I got it, some days I so definitely do not - the latter we shall call "workdays"). Everything after that - flight to Stansted, then train to York - went smoothly, and I even got to catch an earlier train.

Since then, I haven't actually been up to much other than my Errand of Mystery. I went shopping all yesterday morning, trawling in and out of pretty much every establishment York has to offer, but I think the cream of the sales has definitely been snatched up, happily for my wallet. I did get a nice gold shrug/cardi from Oasis - although I would prefer to call it "sparkly beige" rather than gold, seeing as it is a very nice subtle colour and I'm not a fan of a blingy gold look. Today I went to the Minster (cathedral) and found out that, since my last visit in late 2004, they have installed cash desks and you have to pay to go in. I felt a bit of a philistine for not paying, but I have been already after all. Instead, I had a Belgian hot chocolate (mmm) and had a walk around part of the medieval town walls. It was a lovely sunny day, perfect for a stroll.

I'm currently blogging from the pub - definitely a fan of the English pub, coming as it does with proper English cider (mmmm) and, in this case, free wifi, although chat is also a welcome option (other than with the guy who was talking very loudly on his cellphone about "pleading Not Guilty" to something or other). Not too sure what I'll get up to tomorrow - my last full day, before having to catch the train to the airport at 6 am on Saturday, boooooo - there is a free walking tour that I quite fancy, although I decided to only bring boots in order to save on luggage space/weight (Ryanair!) and consequently, my feet are not super happy with me, so I don't know how a 2-hour walking tour will go down.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

What am I reading? The Butcher's Tale by Helmut Walser Smith

The Butcher's Tale: Murder and anti-Semitism in a German town by Helmut Walser Smith

I've been doing quite a bit of reading over the Christmas break and since I've been making an effort to get back to the gym more regularly (if I'm torturing myself on the bike, I'm doing it while reading and listening to my ipod, thank you very much), so this isn't 'what I'm reading' so much as 'what I read before Christmas'. I would love to bring you more details from the book, but sadly when I went away for Christmas I forgot Bob's Golden Rule (heh) which is "If on the floor it be, then on it I shall pee" (Bob's words, not mine). So yeah, I foolishly left this book on the floor next to my bed, and when I came back a week later, Bob had peed all over it. Charming. Luckily enough, I had at least finished reading it.

Anyway, this book focuses on a murder that took place in Konitz, a small German (now I think Polish) town in 1900. The town's suspicions quickly turned on its Jewish inhabitants, and Walser Smith uses this incident to trace the history of the "blood libel" – the myth that Jews need the blood of Christians in order to carry out religious rituals. So yeah, it's "What Sarah Palin SHOULD have been reading". It goes back and forth between recounting what happened in Konitz – who accused the Jews and why, how anti-Semites came into the town from far afield in order to stoke the fires, theories on who the murderer might have been, etc. - and telling the broader history of blood libel accusations and anti-Semitism in Europe.

While I love a good murder mystery, I probably found the sections on the book which retraced the transmission of the blood libel idea most interesting. Walser Smith retraces how the blood libel story was formulated and passed down through time and space, flaring up at moments of tension despite having been consistently debunked (including by the Catholic Church) long before the dawn of the twentieth century. I often found myself wondering how people could still believe these things in 1900, before of course "remembering" that these sorts of beliefs and incidents are just part of the tapestry leading to the Holocaust.

Walser Smith doesn't really labour this point, but it is an interesting insight into the historical background of Nazism and a reminder that it wasn't just an isolated phenomenon based on an ideology totally foreign to contemporary Europe. It was also a reminder of how "history" (and religion) can be made into propaganda - the book recounts incidents of the cults of various saints, supposedly murdered by the Jews in the Middle Ages, being revived or plaques commemorating similar incidents being refurbished at moments when people, for whatever reason, wanted to stir up anti-Semitic feelings. History as politics. Of course, the act of remembering can also be a positive one, as with this book.

If you're interested in history in general, or any of these specific themes, I would definitely recommend this book. As a 'true crime' story, it is perhaps a little weaker, but then that's not really the point. It is popular history, but history nonetheless.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Venice: The final chapter

Last week I finally finished off my trip to Strasbourg, and today I bring you an even older voyage - my November 2010 trip to Venice. I've already posted photos of Venice in Venice Wanderings by Water and Land, Around St. Mark's Square, Signs of Venice, St. Marks - details, St Mark's Interior, and Acqua Alta! and written about the trip in Venice Day 1, Venice Day 2 (original) and Last Day in Venice. Yet, unbelievably, there's more! I think I mentioned in one of the posts that I took 846 photos in the few days I was there. I had a pretty exhausting time of it, and saw a lot, although there was still lots of stuff I didn't get to see that I would have liked to. Even so, I'm not sure whether I'd go back. I left satisfied with my trip, let's put it that way. As you can see from the titles, most of the photos I posted already were wandering around Venice and in and around St. Mark's.

So I will finish up with photos from the main "sights" I went to, starting with the Accademia Gallery, which I saw on Day 1:

One of a series of trompe l'oeil paintings hung high up in the gallery

I wish I knew who this unfinished painting was by. Amazing use of perspective.

I learnt on my tour of the Doge's Palace that this technique - tying someone's hands behind their back and stringing them up - was the favoured way of torturing prisoners

Old painting of gondolas on the canals

Detail of someone taking his widdle doggie for a boat ride

Afterwards, I went to the Scuola di San Rocco, where the ceilings are dripping with canvases by Tintoretto. I got told off for taking photos, but it was worth it. Magnificent.

I finished up my first full day in Venice with a vaporetto ride down the Grand Canal by night:

On Day 2 I took a tour of the Doge's Palace, visited St. Mark's Cathedral and did a bit of wandering around the Ghetto, all of which is covered in text and photos in earlier posts (although here's a couple of extra photos of the courtyard of the Doge's Palace).

However, I've yet to post any pictures of the inside of the La Fenice opera house, where I also took a (audioguide) tour that day. As I recall, they were pretty strict on taking photos, but here's a few I managed to sneak in:

The lobby

One of the reception rooms upstairs

The ceiling in the opera hall itself

Me reflected in the mirror in I suppose the royal box or something

A few more miscellaneous shots: