Thursday, October 23, 2008

Is Credit Credible?

In the wake of the ongoing financial disaster that has washed up on both sides of the Atlantic, people have been talking a lot about credit, and the culture thereof. Before I go too far, I would like to point out that I understand virtually nothing about high finance, or even low finance, and the reason that I am not rushing to find out so that I can protect my assets is that I don’t have any.

But one thing I do understand is credit cards, and it has recently come to my attention that a French credit card is really only a distant cousin to an American credit card, and that it is much more closely related to the American debit card. In other words, American-style credit cards, where you basically take out a loan from a bank (and not necessarily the one where you have your account) and pay it back with interest, do not exist here. This came as a shock to me. Somehow, after living here for eight years, I never fully absorbed this information. “You mean, people here actually save up their money before they spend it?!” We red-blooded American types charge out and spend on our credit cards and then worry about saving up to pay off the bill. Then the race is on to see if we can pay off the bill before we end up paying horrendous amounts of interest. This behavior, which seems utterly normal to me, strikes my French friends as irresponsible and reckless. “Who, me?” I ask, dumbfounded. Here I always thought I was a pretty prudent spender who was very careful with what little money I possessed.

Suddenly, I was forced to face the fact that I am indeed a willing participant in the very Culture of Credit that it seems is menacing the financial planet with death and destruction. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t run up huge credit card bills (yes, I kept my US cards when I moved here) and then pay tons of interest. But I do rely on them for buying things I can’t exactly afford and then paying them back when I can. I usually pay them off within six months, often much sooner. Does that mean I am afflicted with that dreaded Credit Mentality that the European press says affects 99.9% of Americans? I never thought so, but when you look at French people (and Europeans in general), I have to admit that unlike them, I look at credit as a Friendly Helper, and not as the Dark Lord of Financial Instability, like they do.

From what I’ve gathered, credit is considered unseemly here, something that only fools and scoundrels engage in. French people may have cards marked Visa or MasterCard, but when they use those cards, the money is debited directly from their bank accounts. At most, you can get a 30-day deferral. You can find some American-style cards that offer credit in an alliance of stores, but these cards are frowned upon by the general public. I was discussing this phenomenon with my dad, who is over 80, and he remarked that when he was young, in the pre-Visa/MasterCard era, the very same anti-credit attitude existed in the States.

Upon reflection, I have to admit that there is something to be said for actually taking responsibility for your bank account and buying things according to your present reality, rather than your misty future. On the other hand, if I think of all the things I couldn’t have done without one, I still feel grateful to my credit card for giving me a chance to take that Flamenco workshop in Spain, or having that holiday in the Greek islands. I know it’s not responsible, and I know it’s not sensible. But it’s just so much fun. I’m beginning to think I’m a lot more American than I ever realized…

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Velib—One Year Later

It’s been about a year now since I took my first spin on a Velib bike (see Velib Liberates Paris, and Velib–the Sequel), and during that time, the groovy rent-a-bike program has become an integral part of the Parisian landscape. According to the official Velib website, usage goes up as high as 100,000 rentals per day, and in the month of September, total rentals reached somewhere around 2,830,000. There are close to 1,000 stands sprinkled throughout the city, and the site of someone cruising down a major boulevard on a futuristic bike that looks like it escaped from the film Metropolis, is simply no big deal anymore. It is still a great way to get around the city, provided you maneuver well through Parisian traffic and have learned how to avoid those major boulevards (not enough of which have bus or bike lanes).

There are now two types of people in Paris: those who are willing to risk life and limb to whizz around the city on two wheels, and those who think that those in the first category need to have their heads examined. The former, many of whom would never have dreamed of biking through the capital before those wacky-looking Velibs showed up, have thrown themselves into the thick of urban traffic with reckless abandon, or at least what feels like reckless abandon, because after all, simply surviving rush hour gives you a rush. It may be foolhardy, but it feels like freedom. And as some people have pointed out to me, it’s actually safer to be on a bike in Paris than in a lot of other large cities, like say, New York. There are more and more bike lanes, occasional equipped with cement dividers that keep motor traffic out, and there are many bus lanes where you only have to contend with buses, taxis, and drivers on the verge of a nervous breakdown who simply can’t resist the temptation to fly down the relatively uncluttered bus lanes.

Being a parent, and feeling a moral responsibility to return home alive, I have taken to doing something that makes me look like a total nerd, and thus something that hardly any real Parisians ever do: I wear a helmet. I bring it in my backpack just in case I get the urge to Velib. I’m not sure how high this actually raises my safety quotient, but it does make me feel a lot better.

There are things you gotta know to Velib effectively. Among other things:

• always take a map of the city showing where the stands are. Spontaneity is all very well and good, but without a map you risk much cursing and frothing of the mouth when you can’t find a stand to park your bike.

•plan ahead. Look at said map (which hopefully has one-way streets indicated) and figure out the best way to get from point A to B before you get on the bike.

•look at the bike before you hop on and realize the chain is dragging on the ground and the front tire is flat.

And now we get to the $64,000-dollar question: can tourists use the damn thing? While in theory, any credit card with a chip in it will work, in practice people have written to me that they have trouble getting Visas and MasterCards to work, with chip or not. But several bike fans have reported that for some mysterious reason, American Express does work, especially American Express Blue. I’ve even been told that chip-less American Express cards work, though I can’t imagine how. So don’t leave home with out it.

If like me, you’ve never managed to get an American Express card and you don’t have another card that works, don’t despair. Though it’s not as groovy, and you don’t get to use the high-tech stands, there are several places in Paris where you can rent bikes by the hour, 1/2 day or whole day. Try Roue Libre, Paris à Vélo C'est Sympa, or French Connection Bike Tours. The last two also offer nice bike tours.