EURO BLUES

The Dollar's Down. But We're Not Out.

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By Diane Johnson
Sunday, April 27, 2008

PARIS For Americans living in Europe, like my husband and me, watching the U.S. dollar slide into the vale of no value has been a bit like gaining weight: At first, when you notice those additional pounds, you tell yourself it's only temporary. Then you begin to hope that some small measures -- cutting out carbohydrates, switching to skim -- might suffice. Just so, we expatriates are all clutching at little ways to save a dollar here or $20 there.

Small luxuries are the first thing to go. In our family, with a great feeling of sacrifice, we first stopped ordering mineral water in restaurants, saving as much as 4 euros an outing! This turns out to be everyone's first stratagem, and it doesn't make a dent. Then we calculated that cutting out one restaurant meal would save around $200 a week, or $800 a month! This was a shock -- could we really be spending so much on eating out? Yes! And we're not talking about fancy restaurants, just the bistro at the corner when there's nothing in the house or the quick lunch a couple of times a week. It emerged that we were spending much more than $200 a week on restaurants, in fact. Who cared, when the euro was 80 cents?

But those days are a distant memory now. With the exchange rate around $1.60 to the euro, Americans who live abroad but are paid in dollars are having a rough time, to put it mildly, absorbing what can amount to a pay cut of 50 percent. Tourists, meanwhile, reel in shock to find that a half-dozen of their eagerly anticipated croissants may cost them $50. I'm not exaggerating. Farmed salmon steak in my Paris market costs $23 a pound -- it would be half that in San Francisco -- and the newspaper is $4 a day. Everything costs double what it did just four years ago. For retirees or students on fixed dollar incomes, the terrible exchange rate often means drastic life changes -- moving to a cheaper quarter or a smaller apartment, or even going back to the States, which for people ensconced in their lives here is the last resort, and sometimes not even an option.

A certain amount of painful self-awareness becomes part of the economizing process. Eating out is an area everybody I've talked to is cutting back on, but it's part of the point of French life, so giving it up hurts. Like us, other families are doing more entertaining at home. Gone is the impulse purchase of cepes or expensive terrines of foie gras. Someone advises us with perfect seriousness that drinking wine is cheaper than drinking Coke, but that doesn't help us since we do that anyway. Another friend recommends buying a phalaenopsis orchid plant that lasts months instead of spending 20 euros a week on cut flowers. A recent letter to the newspaper advises selling your car if you have one (we don't), and frequenting cafes that offer newspapers that you can read while you sip your cafe au lait. "And stand up at the counter," someone reminds us. "Two euros cheaper than sitting down." But of course, that misses the point of being in a cafe, hanging out, people-watching, writing your novel. . . .

Even the smallest measure induces a feeling of virtue, though it doesn't affect the big expenses of rent, tuition, transportation, utilities and medical care. I think of stopping our subscription to Le Figaro, but not to the International Herald Tribune, without which we'd be lost. Cooperatives for exchanging the New Yorker have sprung up. I pass on my Times Literary Supplements and New York Reviews of Books to my friend Eric in Germany. Every day's mail brings offers of new and cheaper combined Internet/phone/cable TV services -- there's Alice, and Orange, and Neuf -- so it occurred to me that we were spending too much on separate hookups and should avail ourselves of one of these. But the heart sinks, quails, before the effort of dealing with all the French bureaucracy involved, the wait, the malfunctions and the small print, wherein (I rationalize) I'm sure to find that in some way the cost will rise to its present levels in a few months -- just like in the States. I hope to find some easier way to cut corners.

One of them is likely to be fewer trips to California. Good-bye to our days in business class, which now could cost around $7,000 to San Francisco. Hello to hours spent online, seeking desperate itineraries via Heathrow or Frankfurt, and to anxious assessments of frequent flyer programs, though no airline wants to make it easy for us to cash in our thousands of miles.

I can imagine what you're thinking, reading this. Almost all we Americans living over here are struck by the lack of sympathy we get from people back home, beginning with Congress, which builds in subtle forms of punishment for the fun of living the European life, such as making expatriates pay taxes in both countries and refusing us Medicare. Paradoxically, we expats never feel more American than when we're over here in Europe, where we're suffused with patriotism and passionate concern for our country. But here is where we live, and no one likes to be uprooted -- or, more especially, to uproot their kids. And many who work in specialized fields here would have trouble finding jobs back home, where things have moved on without them. My husband, a professor of medicine, is retired from the University of California and works on world health issues for organizations based in Paris. I'm the trailing wife -- no hardship, since a novelist can work anywhere. And one of our kids is married to a Frenchman here and has produced three little Fran├žais, so we have lots of reasons to stay, even apart from the safer streets and wonderful trains.

When Americans back home discuss expatriates, I always seem to detect a note of unexpressed malice, which suggests that, at some level, some people in the States seem to feel that those living in France or Italy or England (but not in, say, Poland) are getting away with something, and if they have to pay a premium for their self-indulgence, tant pis, too bad for them. The attitude seems to be: We have to live here, why should you get out of it?

The corollary of that attitude is, of course, that Americans must unconsciously believe that there are better places to live than the United States. But this is the Great Unsayable. Conversely, there's a certain new spirit of camaraderie in the Parisian expatriate community, a sense of beleaguered fellow-feeling, though many temporary residents and people with other options have already thrown in the towel and left for the States -- or Mexico. One friend is checking out Puerto Vallarta as I write.

What's revealing is how far people will go to stay in Europe, how much reduction in lifestyle they'll accept and still resist relocating. The criteria on which Money magazine bases its annual selection of the best place to live in America ("economic opportunity, good schools, safe streets, things to do and a real sense of community" -- last year it was Middleton, Wis.) still characterize European life, at least in the minds of people who've been expatriates for decades and have more or less forgotten what life in the States is like anyhow.

We may be reduced to choucroute and cassoulet, but c'est la vie. We're still in Paris. It could be worse.

djohnson@aol.com

Diane Johnson's novels include "Le Divorce," "Le Mariage" and the forthcoming "Lulu in Marrakech."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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