Category Archives: Travel

Booking TGV

TGV = train à grand vitesse, the French high-speed train. 3-1/2 to 4 hours, Montpellier to Paris, or vice versa.

Why TGV when I’m booked on Air France all the way to Montpellier?

It’s mostly about the cat, Simon. Imported pets no longer are kept in quarantine, so long as they have a “pet passport,” which certifies that the pet is healthy, has recent rabies shots, and has the requisite 15-digit microchip. All of which is checked when I enter the country. Which means collecting luggage, going through inspection at customs, then going through security for the next leg. In my case, there’s a whopping one hour and fifteen minutes between scheduled arrival from SFO and scheduled departure to MPL. Despite what the nice lady at Air France (really Delta) said, that’s not enough time. Not going to happen. Certainly not when AF 083 (SFO > CDG) typically runs an hour late.

So, alternate plan: The next flight to Montpellier is much later in the day, and would put me into MPL near midnight. Therefore, I’ll skip the CDG > MPL leg on Air France — and by the way, buying a round trip ticket and using only one leg is still way cheaper than a one-way ticket, so I’m still ahead despite throwing away part of the ticket — and take the TGV from the airport (the station’s below Terminal 2) at roughly 14:00h and arrive in Montpellier about 18:00h. In comfort and style, with less stress on me and on Simon. That’s the theory anyway.

So, to buy a ticket on the TGV, I go to the SNCF website, English version at, where I already created an account. Search for the train I want (after already scoping it out several times), click the button to pay 102€ for first class (that comfort and convenience thing again), check the box that says “sure, give me a senior discount card while we’re at it,” and oh, yes, please let me select my seat!!, then proceed to the payment page — already set up my no-foreign-transaction-fees Bank of America Visa card — and click the button that says “make it so.” The site says “we’re gonna check with your bank, so stand by.” And nothing happens. I think it’s a done deal. But there’s no confirmation, and no indication that there’s a reservation in process for my account.

Try that three times and conclude something’s not right.

Oh, and meanwhile, checked the rules for bringing Simon on board the train, which say sure, pet over 6 kilos in a carrier and has to buy a ticket, too, but you can’t do that online, so call us. Yeh, 10 minutes on hold after following a long phone-tree all in rapid French with no “for English press 2” option, I give up. I’ll deal with it at the station.

Oh, and, the buying-a-ticket process says I have to show my senior discount card along with my ticket on the train, so enter your discount card number here, but I don’t have it yet, I thought I was making that happen in the booking process, so something else is not. . . quite. . . right.


If you followed that SNCF in English link above, you might note a tiny little EU flag in the upper right corner. Click the dropdown, it says “Europe (other countries)” with a list of other European countries and “Rest of the world.” Click “Rest of the world” and I wind up here Which is where the rest of us can buy TGV tickets.


So, create another account, locate that same TGV trip, see a fare in US dollars that’s pretty close to the converted-from-Euros price, select that, pay with the DiscoverCard (because I can, and it’s in dollars not euros). And that process seems to work. Confirmation via email, booking shows up in my account. Click “detailed itinerary” and see that RailEurope has assigned me a seat without taking any input from me; fortunately, it’s what I would have asked for, single seat, lower level. Again, nothing about how to pay the fare for Simon, but again, I’ll sort that out at the station.

But there’s more to that story.

Poking around on The Man in Seat 61, I learn that, if I could make the French SNCF site work for me from California, I would be able to pay the cat fare when buying my ticket. . . but only on the French version, not the English version of the very same site. See the fine print at

OK. I’ll pay for Simon at the station. I have my ticket, at least.


Moving challenges

The logistical challenges around moving from here to there include:

  • Anything that I ship in the container, I won’t see again until I have a more-long-term apartment. That could be six months or more.
  • To successfully negotiate the Aptos > SFO > Paris CDG > Montpellier voyage without having a heart attack, I need to:
    1. Pack one bag efficiently, with no more than 50 pounds of stuff, but with everything I will need immediately.
    2. Pack one carry-on bag (my trusty L.L. Bean messenger bag) with iPad, documents, chargers, and so on.
    3. Pack one cat.
  • Anything I will need between arrival in MPL and seeing my shipped stuff months later must be shipped, somehow, to my apartment.

Yeh, that last one is a challenge. I figure packing one additional suitcase with clothes and a carry-on size bag with books and miscellany (no more than 50 pounds each!) will keep me going. Oh, but my technological needs, there’s the rub!

I researched online, and found several companies who will ship your luggage to you, for about $250 for a standard 50# bag. Check the UPS site, I found suggestions that the same bag, stuffed in a box, could be delivered for about the same, $250. So I visited the local UPS Store to see if they could verify that information. . . um, no, not really. More like $900. Each 50# box. Ouch. The nice lady suggested I come back with more precise dimensions of my needs, and also to try the US Postal Service. Yes, really.

At the Aptos Post Office, I learned that one 50# bag, boxed or not, sent Priority Express International, would run about $179 and take a week. No kidding. That’ll work.

One more detail, though. . . technology. I don’t seriously believe I can make do with an iPad only for months. Not if I need access to past tax returns and other documents, email that’s not on Gmail, and so on. In light of the prospective cost to have UPS pack and ship my iMac and the attendant peripherals, including multiple external drives, I’m thinking shipping the storage units and not the actual iMac might make sense. This machine is 5+ years old. The cost to ship it could be ~half the cost to just buy a new one when I’m there. If I carry a portable 1TB drive with me, I can have most of what I need on a new machine, and then pick up the backups as needed.

Certificat de changement de résidence

With visa in hand, I was able to request the “Certificat de changement de résidence,” which is French for “since you’re coming to live in France, you can bring your stuff with you without paying customs duty.” The companies involved in shipping my stuff from here to there need it to get through customs.

I poked around on the French Consul in San Francisco site and found the relevant page, in French: A the end of the page is a “cliquant ici” link, which is actually a mailto: with the email address my request should go to, I sent email with my passport, visa, and address information, and date of my move, 17 October. The nice diplomat at that address responded with a request for credit card info to charge the $24 fee. And, voila, by return email I have the certificat, a letter with an official stamp and signature.

Time elapsed since my visa appointment on 4 September: barely two weeks.


That French visa

For those following my adventures in moving to France, here’s my experience on the visa  process.

France is one of several countries contracting the visa process to VFSGlobal. Not every consulate is with VFSGlobal yet; my experience is with the San Francisco location. To apply for a visa, I started here: I created an account and started an application. I received a list of all the documents required, and made an appointment to appear in person with my documents (that was today’s adventure). Despite the document that acknowledges receipt of the application, the appointment is at the VFSGlobal office at 315 Montgomery St, not at the French Consulate at 88 Kearny, San Francisco. It’s only about three blocks from one to the other location, but in San Francisco three blocks can involve a significant change in altitude, so for me it paid to get the right location and park as nearby as possible.

What they didn’t tell me: I was one of many people applying for various flavors of visas from any number of countries, mashed into a smallish waiting room. And there was a sign saying that the VFSGlobal staff have no influence on whether your visa is accepted or not. So brushing up on basic greetings in French does no good.

Next, even though there’s nothing on the visa application checklists that says this, I needed a photocopy of my passport and other ID (driver license in my case). But, they made copies for me and charged a buck each on top of the application fee. The application fee quoted on the application site is 99€, which translated to $115, a quite reasonable $1.16 to 1.00€ conversion rate.

And, despite what I read on various blogs and discussion boards, I didn’t need an FBI report. (I should write up that experience, too, later.) In fact, VFS Global staff will take your fingerprints in a final “biometric” step.

What did I bring to persuade French authorities that I’ll be a valuable contributor and not a burden to France? They expected bank account statements (I brought three months’ worth). I also brought and handed over my Social Security statement showing how much SS will be paying me later this month; my latest IBM 401k statement; my latest MorganStanley account statement (IRA and non-retirement accounts); and a statement from my French bank account. Also, a copy of the lease for my initial apartment in Montpellier, and my ticket via Air France. Return ticket was not expected, but it’s cheaper to buy round-trip and just cancel or never use the return.

In one week I can check the visa application site to see status, and, if all goes well, check again after two weeks to see when I can pick up my passport.

Moving? to France!?

My fellow students in Maryon’s very-beginning-French class, via the Alliance Française Silicon Valley in Santa Cruz — which I can recommend — insisted that I make some record of how I go about moving to France in my impending retirement.

So here goes.

I will say at the outset that I intend (knowing that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions) to avoid becoming Yet Another Expatriate who has harrowing yet amusing adventures dealing with those funny French. Enough already. I will tell here what I did and how it went. That’s it. Let’s see how long that lasts.

For starters: How I got to here.

I first visited Paris in July 2010 for a meeting of the ACM SIGCHI executive committee. We were there to set the stage, as it were, for CHI 2013, the organization’s big annual conference that we’d committed to hold in Paris three years hence. Getting an expense-paid trip to Paris while doing voluntary but professionally related work seemed like a good deal. It was.

I enjoyed that trip. I found that waiters were able to understand my minimal French: At least one complimented me on my pronunciation. I learned how to navigate the Metro. I saw some sights in company of the wonderful Elizabeth Churchill (now VP of ACM when she’s not a design exec at Google). I saw enough to know I wanted to come back and see more.

So, come 2013, I was back in Paris for CHI 2013. But I planned ahead and booked something near to a week of pre-conference time to my self, to explore the City of Light and its many museums. I visited the Louvre, saw “Winged Victory” and the “Mona Lisa,” like a good tourist. I visited the Musée d’Orsay and was stunned at my first experience of Van Gogh’s work in person, especially the “Starry Night Over the Rhône.” I visited the Musée Montmartre and strolled by the Lapin Agile. And Espace Dali. The Centre Pompidou. The Guimet. The Galeries Lafayette — no, that was in 2010. The Musée Rodin, “The Thinker,” “The Gates of Hell,” and discovered, like everyone before me, Camille Claudel.

I also made friends with two lovely young ladies who were generous enough to engage in conversation despite my minimal grasp of their native tongue. Carmen at the Pomme de Pain helped me select a lunch combo — sandwich, dessert, beverage — smiled and called out “Ça va?” when I showed up later with a CHI lunch crowd. And Judy (Jeudi? I never asked), the hostess at the hotel’s dining room, who smiled and conversed briefly each morning. Because of these two I learned that the French are not really rude at all, if you’ll just try speaking their language. It is their country, after all.

So, I came home from that trip thinking that I liked France, that maybe it would make a suitable location for my retirement, and that five years was a good timeframe for planning: Long enough to be practical, soon enough to make it real, if I started taking the steps.