Saturday, December 26, 2015

Getting And Giving For Grinches
For Americans, the stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day is supercharged with giving and getting. It's no different for us Americans living in France.

But lest we forget, the year-end also brings the close to the dreaded tax year.

Faced with huge French tax bills, I asked my financial adviser friend out to lunch. What do we do? I asked, hoping she would make our bills disappear.

She didn't have an easy out. Instead, she talked “tax strategy”: Sock it away, and give it away.

To reduce our tax bill, she said, we had three choices: Take advantage of French tax breaks for investing in retirement funds, or another break for charitable donations. (So far, so familiar to U.S. tax breaks.)

Or, we could just pay the tax bill. 


So we made an appointment at our bank. This was no fun at all. Our bank took a 3% fee for taking our money, and offered very little in the way of return. Plus, our money was locked up until retirement day. For our bank, it is much better to receive than to give.

However, we had a lot of fun giving it away.

One charity we picked that is close to my heart as a journalist is Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF or Reporters Without Borders), which promotes and defends freedom of information and freedom of the press, and helps journalists working in dangerous areas.

For example, RSF is currently campaigning to free from prison Can Dündar, the editor of the Turkish daily newspaper Cumhuriyet. That's because the newspaper reported in May that Turkey's secret service was delivering arms to Islamic groups in Syria. Turkey has accused Dündar of espionage and terrorism.

I was happy to double my donation through my company's matching gift program, as part of their Giving Tuesday campaign. If you haven't heard of it, Giving Tuesday is the annual drive after Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Which is right after Thanksgiving Thursday.

Death. Taxes. Matching Gifts. Giving Tuesday. There are so many reasons to give, whether it's from the bottom of your heart, or the bottom line of your tax bill. I'm one-half Grinch, so I need all the reasons I can get. I mean give.

Rose Marie Burke, an editor and journalist, writes a blog about her personal insights into life in Paris. After 20 years in the City of Light, she still calls her native Pittsburgh "home."

Sunday, December 20, 2015

My Books Of The Year

Here are my favorite books of 2015, ones that I actually started and finished, which means they stood the ultimate test of (bedtime reading) time. I hope you might enjoy them too.

“Tita,” by Marie Houzelle, in English, 1994. Category: books by friends.
The author writes a coming of age novel about a French girl southern France in the 1950s. Tita is very smart, hates to eat, and is puzzled by the world and why her mother forgets to kiss her goodnight. It's a girl version of “Petit Nicolas,” but with edge. Marie peppers her novel with some French, but always explains the terms, and there's an amusing glossary at the end. For example: “belle-mère, beautiful mother = mother-in-law or stepmother. The adjective beau or belle is used in French for all step and in-law family relationships, probably in order to encourage good feelings that might not arise naturally.” Great for anyone who is growing up and learning French, two things that have remained on my to-do list for decades.

“La vie devant soi,” in French by Romain Gary, 1975. Category: books on daughter's reading list.
This heart-wrenching story is about a Muslim boy, Momo, who is the favorite of babysitter Madame Rosa, an old Jewish woman, former prisoner at Auschwitz, retired prostitute in Paris. There are many themes in this book, community, the Holocaust, immigration, aging … which is why teachers like it. It won France's top Goncourt prize, and a film version, “Madame Rosa,” with Simone Signoret, won an Oscar in 1977 for best foreign film. The book is also available in English under the name, “The Life Before Us.”

“French Kisses,” by David R. Poe, 1994. Category: books by friends.
This a collection of 13 quirky stories about your usual normal but odd Americans living in Paris—people like me. One story, “Playing Above The Rim,” is about a weekly pickup basketball game in a city with few courts, except one in an American church basement. While the first dozen are fiction, the book ends with creative nonfiction, a truer than life look at the life a man built for himself, and a house that he rebuilt for his family, and reflections on what will last—my favorite!

Nous Sommes Charlie,” 2015. Category: Current events.
This book, published shortly after the terrorist attacks against the newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, brings together 60 writers on the subject of freedom of expression, tolerance, and much more. The essays are by contemporary writers like Bernard-Henri Lévy and also classic authors like Voltaire and Beaumarchais. Here, the French try to come to terms with the terrorists and their motives. 

“L'étrangère,” by Valerie Toranian. Category: Current events, commemoration
of the Armenian genocide of 1915. 
Written by a French woman of Armenian descent, the book delves into the life of Aravni, the author's grandmother, who survived the genocide to live and raise a family in France. The grandmother never told the complete story, so the writer beautifully pieces together the story of this “foreigner” in Turkey and “foreigner” in France. Which makes you wonder whether we are all not foreigners, no matter where we live.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Cops and COP21 in Paris

In the aftermath of the Nov. 13, terrorist attacks here in Paris, the city braced itself for the global climate change talks that began last week. What do these two things have in common? Security. Police, armed forces, and security guards are omnipresent.

Some commentators have questioned whether countries should focus on terrorism or the environment, but not France. The country is proceeding with its war on terrorism and its conference to combat climate change. However, the president has toned it down and scaled it down, for instance telling climate activists to stay at home (or else). COP21 is no longer a climate party, just a (yawn) Conference of the Parties.

Shoes placed on the Place de la Republique,
after a climate march was canceled.

In past weeks I have been guilty of contributing to the massive amount of information overload around COP21, helping my company to edit and produce a climate change report. You can see the report here.

"COP21 is no longer a climate party, just a (yawn) Conference of the Parties." 

For me, evidence that this is serious business is that big investors, who don't want to lose their shirts, are looking to put money in green ventures and pull money out of carbon businesses like coal, especially. Why? There's no future in it.

For a long time, especially in my home town of Pittsburgh, the debate was jobs versus the environment. My dad worked at one of the steel mills (and so did I, for one summer). My dad put food on the table at the same time the mill spewed pollution into the air we breathed. It was a cruel bargain.
Downtown Pittsburgh, 1940.

Today, though, we know how to build a greener economy offering cleaner jobs. We don't have to use the air as a garbage dump. We thought it was a free ride, but now the costs are mounting.

I'm still thinking of what I can do. Take fewer airplane trips, eat less beef, and buy less stuff—that's probably a good start. And I'll save some euros for the daughter's college fund, get some stay-cation sleep, and eat healthier. (To learn more or take action, you might want to see what Pope Francis has to say here.)

COP21 is not the party we wanted. But that's OK. We just need for everyone to get along, get something done, and have a safe trip home.

Rose Marie Burke, an editor and journalist, writes a blog about her personal insights into life in Paris. After 20 years in the City of Light, she still calls her native Pittsburgh "home."