Made in France

Straight Outta Sarthe

So! It’s been a while. As you may have heard, we in Washington have had a curious past few weeks. The number of protests I have attended since January 20th now sits at 4 (the preceding 30-year average was 0), and I’ve gotten pretty good at protest dress, protest sign-making, and protest chanting, among other things. The flurry of executive belches emerging from the depths of what was once America’s great seat of statesmanship has been terrifying yet seemingly inescapable; I’ve had to enact strict limits on how long I can actually spend on social media tracking this race to drive America off a cliff, because otherwise that’s all I’d be doing all day.

Fortunately, France, too, has delivered some excitement, with erstwhile poll leader François Fillon snagged up in a scandal already hashtag-christened #PenelopeGate. Now, I know I wrote in November that the 2017 French presidential election had basically already been decided in favor of the guy who actually ended up losing to Fillon, so my France-dar is maybe a little wonky, and the rest of this should therefore probably be taken with caution. However, Fillon’s stumbles do make for an important lesson in accidental political self-immolation that should be required reading for all poli sci students going forward.

I learned of Fillon’s primary win while watching the sun set over Rio from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain – very romantic – and figured the election was over, they’d just subbed in Fillon for Juppé. This very nice man (really, a perfectly charming guy) now had it in the bag – I wasn’t a fan of his political platform, but I, too, bought the “propriety” and “integrity” lines, and no one else seemed capable of mobilization. I had to chuckle-cry at the media reactions to him mentioning that he’s both a Gaullist and a Christian – “IS SECULARISM UNDER ASSAULT?!” read the tickers onscreen, and I just wept for America, where people who believe hurricanes are caused by gay marriage get reelected without any issues. My reaction was akin to that of a whiny tween – “but how come Fraaaaance gets a progressive humanistic democracy based on intelligence and reason and not meeeeeee?” (One possible answer to this question is provided a bit further down.) All I’ll say for now is y’all don’t know how good you have it.

Anyway. Back to Fillon. All of a sudden it all came crashing down – first with the revelation that he’d paid his wife half a million, wait, no, almost a million euro for work she may or may not have completed (or even known about?), then with a “communications” “plan” that began with accusations of misogyny, then slander, followed by struggles with chronology and brand new versions emerging every time another surrogate appeared before a media microphone, or roughly twice an hour. It’s carried on since, and fresh manure is scheduled to be dropped toward the middle of next week, unless he drops out beforehand. There’s talk of a nationally televised mea culpa staged for tomorrow night GMT, and you bet I’ll be glued to seven screens in that moment, but… talk about a fall from grace. I honestly can’t see how he can crawl out of this at this stage and continue a campaign built on calls of austerity and belt-tightening (or anything else, really), but there’s no replacement mechanism built into the primary statutes, and there doesn’t seem to be a winnable Plan B. He seems to hold his moral stature in very high regard, so if the pressure really gets to be unbearable, he’ll probably fold at the expense of further ridicule. Some major outlets have already mentioned that Juppé could, theoretically, be persuaded to run (and my earlier prediction could turn out to be right for all the wrong reasons), but I don’t see a good way out of this for anybody.

The English-language press has declared the Fillon situation “business as usual” for French politics, but again, some perspective is useful here. We have a kleptocrat in the White House who watches Finding Dory in the afternoons, gets too tired 25 minutes into a phone call with a lead ally, and replaces the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs with his Nazi BFF. I’m once again tempted to point out that where I come from, France’s current political “crisis” is very, very small potatoes indeed 🙂

It does, however, underscore a crucial point for the Nth time: the French are just better at this whole democracy thing. They’re culturally more demanding of their elites, they’re more philosophical and thus measured in their approach, and they care about platforms, policies, rights, liberties, and FACTS. They care about what their policies say about France as a nation and as a world power, they understand principles and why they’re important, and even the least palatable and most controversial messages are delivered using turns of phrase that demonstrate respect for the intelligence of their electorate. I mentioned to a friend of mine that this is “the most intellectually rigorous WTFery I’ve ever witnessed”, and it’s true – nowhere has a political scandal been publicly litigated with such finesse in phrasing.

All of that aside, all I really want to talk about at this stage is Mr. Emmanuel Macron. He got off to a bit of a slow start, and I figured he’d eventually position himself as a protest vote candidate to get some media exposure and regroup for 2022. I was very, very wrong. I’d been following him with some intensity ever since he joined the government (because I am a straight woman with eyes), but once he warmed up, he became pure magic, and he just gets better every time. Yesterday’s rally in Lyon was absolutely mesmerizing, I’d never seen anything like it – he’s brilliant and he’s just an extraordinary orator, I think the young Obama comparisons are spot on in this regard. I cannot wait to watch him eat the rest of them for dinner at the first big debate, and with the way Fillon’s gone, I think he has a really solid shot at this. My current predictions for the first round stand at Le Pen 24%, Macron 24%, Hamon 18%, Fillon/Juppé 16%, Melenchon 8%, Jadot 3% and crumbs for the rest, with Macron cleaning up the second round neatly. (As I’ve mentioned before, Le Pen doesn’t stand a mathematical chance in the second round, and it’s frustrating to keep seeing this brought up. The very structure of the French electoral system is designed specifically to prevent the fringes from taking over.)

Here’s Macron in Lyon, being perfect:


On the application front, I have an almost-finished CV and an almost-finished lettre de motivation – it’s only missing two sentences. I’ve also been practicing speaking with a very nice French teacher from Poitiers, trying to devote more time to reading the very large number of books I want to finish, and averaging about 6 hours a day on consumption of French media – mostly political talk shows, news broadcasts, podcasts, and other useful things. My comprehension is at 100%, with very rare exceptions, and my expression is rapidly gaining fluidity – I’m living proof that the AJATT method really works. The difference between September and now is indescribable – I don’t even think about the fact that I’m watching something in French anymore, I don’t translate in my head, and I have entire groups of terms I understand implicitly in French without any sort of English equivalent handy. I still have a long way to go before I feel ready to interview, though, and I absolutely need to be speaking more, hours every day, whenever possible. I’ll write a little more about the mechanics behind how I’m gaining fluency next time.


Eight perfect days in Brazil

Brazil! Where do I even start. This was sort of a last-minute switch – I had planned to go to Cartagena over Thanksgiving instead, but I saw $650 fares to Rio on Google Flights and, well, that was that. I found a kickass deal on Rocketmiles to earn an extra 16,000 United miles on five nights in Rio, and then there was also this view:



We spent five nights in Rio and two in Foz do Iguaçu / Puerto Iguazú, the Iguaçu Falls region in Brazil and Argentina, respectively. Rio is phenomenal, and we could’ve easily doubled our time there. Note that high season with optimal beach temperatures doesn’t start until mid-December; if you’re going in the off season, bring a few warmer layers for the evenings.


We stayed at the Marina Palace Leblon in Rio, with its chief advantages being that it was in Leblon, across the street from the beach, and available on Rocketmiles. It was also among the cheaper beachfront options I saw, which illustrates Rio’s only drawback – it’s pricey. This was a solid 3* no-frills hotel with an outstanding free breakfast, and we got a bit of a ocean view:

Woke up to this…


* Proper beach food is a very important part of the process: pair a cup of matte (a sweet tea sometimes mixed with lemonade) with biscoito globo (a sweet or savory baked puff thing) from a beach vendor (R$ 7 for the set; look for the guys carrying a canister on each shoulder), or have a misto-quente (grilled ham and cheese toast, R$ 14) and wash it down with a freshly hacked coconut (usually R$ 5-7).

* Tides are rough, particularly when it’s windy. Copacabana has calmer waters, but is way busier than Ipanema and Leblon. The waves seem smoother at the far end of Ipanema, close to Arpoador. Leblon was virtually unswimmable, with the water being way too dangerous, but it was by far the least crowded and most beautiful beach.


* We really loved staying in Leblon – just the most wonderful little neighborhood, with everything close by, and probably the city’s safest as well. Lest Ryan Lochte insist otherwise, Rio is actually quite calm provided you’re in the “right” parts and don’t go off exploring too wildly. Avoid overt displays of wealth, especially at the beach or after dark. (Sidenote: this Songify is everything.)

* I have unlimited worldwide data roaming (❤ T-Mobile), so we got around using Uber, which was incredibly convenient and much cheaper than cabs.

Christ the Redeemer & Sugarloaf

Both of these are well worth the trip, but pick a clear (or very lightly cloudy) day. Both can be done in a single day – head to Corcovado / Christ early in the day, spend the afternoon in Copacabana, and head up to Sugarloaf about an hour and a half before sunset.

Corcovado / Christ the Redeemer
Midday view from Corcovado / Christ the Redeemer
Sunset view from Sugarloaf
Lights out, lights on from Sugarloaf

The Corcovado train that takes you up to Christ the Redeemer sells timed passes, so give yourself enough time to get there. If you use their app to buy the passes, you’ll get preferential boarding. Sugarloaf also offers timed passes online, but my credit card didn’t work on their website; we ended up getting tickets onsite without an issue.

Noms etc.

Brazilian food is basically all amazing. We fell in love with a place called Jobi in Leblon – they’re open late and have incredible food and drinks. In fact, we were meeting up with a friend of mine who’s a Rio native one evening, and he suggested Jobi without any prompting from us, so it’s definitely local-approved. The caipirinhas are fantastic, as are the picanha, the escondidinho, the morela, and the papaya cream. It’s not a budget pick – for a picanha to share (plenty of food for 2) and 4 caipirinhas, the bill comes to just around US$ 70, but it was all so good that we came back twice more.

The Garota de Ipanema bar/restaurant, where The Girl from Ipanema was written, is worth a visit: the food is good, and you can buy some interesting souvenirs.

Other than that, we just sort of ate wherever, and it was all very tasty. We had lots of beach vendor food, from fried cheese to “Arabian” meat pies, and some regular cafe food – the restaurant up by Christ the Redeemer serves excellent Brazilian beer and savory beef scallops, and the pão de queijo (cheese bread) is just really good everywhere.


We visited the brand new Rio aquarium, which is still really new, so they don’t have a lot going on. However, there is a huge tank with sting rays, so I was good. You should buy timed passes online here as well.

Just look at that little snugglepuffin

Afterwards, we walked through the port area, which used to be some kind of disaster zone but has now been massively cleaned up. There’s a really wonderful arts scene in the neighborhood and lots of awesome murals:


Finally, we ended up at the Museu do Amanhã, profiled by The Guardian here. This was a very last-minute stop, I just Googled it and it looked cool, so in we went. We only had 2 hours here, but could’ve easily spent 2 more – it really is one of the most interesting museums I’ve ever been to. It’s all about “experiences” and “ideas” rather than things, it’s very interactive (play all the games!), and it’s a gorgeous piece of architecture. Note that you’ll need to buy timed passes online, and if you try to pay by credit card, it will require that you enter Brazilian national ID numbers no matter which settings you adjust; use Paypal to check out instead.


Foz do Iguaçu / Puerto Iguazú

For the last 2.5 days, we flew to Foz do Iguaçu for the eponymous waterfalls. This was 10000000% worth it, because the experience really is like nothing else. Forget everything you thought you knew about waterfalls and come here.




On the Brazilian side, we stayed at San Martin Resort, which was a great choice, as it’s walking distance to the entrance to the falls and shockingly budget-friendly. On the Argentine side, we stayed at the Sheraton inside the park, which offers absolutely stunning views:



It’s at least three times as expensive as its next closest rival, but its prime location lets you stay in the park as late as possible and beat the crowds early in the morning. On the morning of our second day, before checkout, we had the falls entirely to ourselves. The Argentine side is definitely better, though the Brazilian side is also gorgeous. On the Argentine side, take a boat to San Martin island and/or around the falls, but for heaven’s sake, wear a swimsuit and some kind of fast-drying layers, because I have never been as drenched in my entire life.

Whichever side you’re on, watch out for these adorable but ferocious little beasts, the famed coati:


They will follow the scent of food and may stage occasional raids on picnic tables in the parks, so be careful – they bite. They are also absolutely the cutest things on the entire planet.

To cross the border, we hired a hotel-affiliated taxi for $40 each way. This can probably be negotiated downwards.

Finally, the Parque das Aves across the street from the falls on the Brazilian side is a wonderful stop. Lots and lots and lots of beautiful birds arranged in an actual park, with interactive exhibits. Like this guy:


Overall impressions

Everything is delicious, beautiful, and sensible. The entire country seems to be one giant successful experiment in societal UX design, which made my Rio native friend chuckle, but which to me is totally true (or maybe I’ve just spent too much time in DC). Everything works. The airport experience is fantastic. TAM, one of Brazil’s national carriers, was expedient, friendly, and on time. Our bags were offloaded before we were. All the food is great, you can buy 70 different kinds of cachaça at grocery stores, the beachfront is developed sensibly, the trails at Iguaçu/Iguazú follow a convenient pattern, everything just makes sense. I was very sad to learn of the plane crash today that took the lives of many Brazilians, including an amazing football team; it really is a country that grabs you by your heart and never lets go, and its people deserve the best.

Made in France

The art of being free

“It is above all in the present democratic age that the true friends of liberty and human grandeur must remain constantly vigilant and ready to prevent the social power from lightly sacrificing the particular rights of a few individuals to the general execution of its designs. In such times there is no citizen so obscure that it is not very dangerous to allow him to be oppressed, and there are no individual rights so unimportant that they can be sacrificed to arbitrariness with impunity.”

Oof. Tough week. If Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of the above, were alive today, he’d surely be writing a very different book on democracy in America. The New Yorker perfectly summarized my thoughts on the matter, in that way only The New Yorker can, and then two bald eagles got stuck in a drain, as if signaling that nature felt the same way. That’s one thing that we do better than France, actually – we bird well. I mean, look at this majestic beast, look at how disappointed he is:


With that said, I’ll turn to France, which has become a form of self-medication because French political discourse is just so goddamn rational. I’ve long maintained, and I think this latest show of national self-immolation serves to demonstrate, that pluralistic political systems, those with more than two viable parties, provide the exact kinds of checks and balances we in the United States so sorely lack. Pluralistic systems, by their very structure, don’t allow the fringes to rule: they drive home the point that compromises are needed for anything to be achieved, because no single party is strong enough alone. With citizens understanding this implicitly, the trickle-down effects of this political consciousness shape their communication in their communities, schools, and workplaces. Coalitions must be formed, those with opposing views must be brought into the fold, and people must organize.

Citizens of pluralistic systems also recognize that the spectrum of political views does not fit neatly within a semicircle (where we got the terms “right” and “left”) or, even worse, onto a straight continuum; instead, the variety of political positions is a circumference along which people can move, some moving so far to the “right” that they end up on the “left” and vice versa. In order to keep people in your segment, you’ve got to continue working for them. This is a demonstration of democratic ideals in their purest sense.

Beyond that, people know that their vote matters, and even beyond that, they get to select from a varied political landscape, allowing everyone to feel good about their vote – this is why turnout is always higher than for elections in which your only options are “yes” or “no”.

Consider this: in April 2002, Jacques Chirac was up for reelection, running primarily against the Socialist contender, Lionel Jospin. As the first round drew to a close, a shocked France discovered that Chirac had received some 5.6 million votes, or 19.88%, and the runner-up was actually the far-right Front National candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen, an individual who openly espouses neo-Nazi ideology, with 4.8 million votes, or 16.86%. Jospin only got 4.6 million, or 16.18%, leaving him out of the second round. Turnout, it should be noted, was 71.6%, or 29.4 million voters.

Two weeks later, in the second round, Chirac got 82% of the vote – some 25.5 million people banded together to stop the extreme right from gaining access to the Élysée. Le Pen got 5.5 million, or 17.79%. Turnout was 79.71% at 32.8 million voters. This means that not only did Chirac retain all of his votes and get all of Jospin’s, but that he also picked up an impressive 15 million on top of that, including a large portion of the 3 million who stayed home for the first round. The results of the first round were a clear signal to the French political system that people were deeply unhappy and were directing themselves toward the fringes, but in just two weeks, the collective horror of what a Le Pen presidency could mean drove 20 million people to the voting booths to cast votes in favor of a candidate they’d previously voted against. That, to me, is the real story. Two weeks. We had 18 months. And yet.

There are more recent examples. During the December 2015 regional elections in France, where voters selected representatives of regional councils, the Front National, now a relatively tame version of itself, handily won the first round of votes nationwide, with 6 million (27.73%) votes cast. Center-right coalition candidates got 5.7 million (26.6%), while the Socialist-left got 23%, or 5 million and some change. These elections were held a mere three weeks after the November 13 attacks across Paris, so the result is understandable. However, what happened next bore an uncanny resemblance to the spring of 2002: in regions where the Socialists were left out of the second round, they called upon their supporters to vote for the right and vice versa. As a result, the center-right got 40% of the vote, with 10 million ballots cast, and the Socialists got 7.2 million, or 28.86%. Most significantly, the FN were kept out of the regional presidencies, and turnout was 4 million higher for the second round to achieve exactly this. The FN decried – not without reason – this so-called “UMPS” tactic, claiming the right and left were colluding (which they were), but it worked. The kicker for us, sadly, is that the modern-day American GOP makes even Marine Le Pen look positively Merkelesque.

It seems likely that Alain Juppé will be France’s next president. Last week, before the world collapsed (note: I went to an event with Ambassador Araud earlier this year, and he’s got a fantastic sense of humor), I watched the second debate of the French center-right primaries with great interest – a lineup of intelligent, respectful individuals conducting themselves in a dignified manner while focusing on what’s really at stake here: policies. Plans. Proposals. Solutions. Analyses. All of the things we never got to discuss out here in the wilderness. Juppé’s October appearance on L’Émission Politique is also an excellent example of the same: in the first 22 minutes, he managed to cover the problems of domestic violence against women, climate change, sustainable development, and youth unemployment. I feel I have to remind you that this is a right-wing candidate.

So what does France get that we don’t? I think it goes back to two things: the pluralistic landscape, of course, which promotes healthy debate, political engagement, and policies over individual candidates, and French history – specifically, its length. America’s achieved some great things in its 200-some years of existence, but its lack of historical memory leads its people to think that you can just “break” the “system” and start over, since that’s how this all came to be, after all. There are no historical reference points to demonstrate that destruction can actually be very counter-productive. French history, on the other hand, makes this point very clearly, as do countless other examples of once-great empires. Too bad we didn’t listen.


Monthly Budget: October 2016

This post has taken so long to prepare that my original savings plan is now completely out of date. I’ll recalibrate that later, but for now, let’s see how I did in October. I’ll preface this by repeating that I have no intention of putting myself through extreme privation to be able to leave for France with $10,000 more than I would have otherwise – I would rather live a reasonable lifestyle and take on a little bit more work while there, which I absolutely recognize as a privilege I’m very fortunate to have. In general, I find the “if you still have cable, you’re worthless and bound to die with an insufficiently diversified investment portfolio” attitude of some corners of the personal finance world a little, uh, rich, if you’ll allow the pun. This isn’t supposed to be the Misery Olympics, as I never tire of repeating.

If you’re playing along at home, here’s a clean copy of the really simple budget spreadsheet I use to track my spending. I put absolutely everything on one of my frequent flyer mileage cards (let no mile go unearned!), so I just tally everything up off of my credit card statement(s). I purposefully started off with a straightjacket budget of $1,000 in disposable income to see how I would do and what would need to be adjusted. Note that this amount did not include any of my fixed costs: rent, utilities, insurance, subscriptions, etc. All of those are detailed here.

Budget & Spending by Category

Category Budgeted Spent
Lunch $150 $172
Transport $100 $0
Health & Beauty $50 $138
Going Out $150 $591
Cat $100 $47
Gifts $50 $27
Activities & Clothes $50 $236
Misc Activities $150 $203
Groceries & Amazon $200 $499
Total $1000 $1917

As evidenced above, October wasn’t a great month for budgeting. Several of the behemoth categories – “going out”, “groceries / Amazon”, and “activities / clothes” – I blame on having spent 8 days on vacation on a fairly pricey island, but really, I could’ve easily gotten by with half the amount in each category. I also bought a $130 wool blazer – a very rare occurrence these days, but a necessary purchase and unlike anything I already own – and ordered $100-something worth of French books on Amazon, which is a spending category I’m really trying to rein in until I read all the books I actually, you know, have. Although I overspent egregiously, I think $1,000 is still a good benchmark to work towards.

A few things helped me out here – I used account credits to cover bus fare and a few Ubers, the frequency of which has dropped dramatically compared to my style of Ubering of months (years) past. I’m all set on shoes forever, literally for the rest of time for the fall/winter, and the only thing I’m still looking for is a replacement wool coat.

November & Beyond

What definitely won’t help me in November is another (yes, another) vacation – I’m taking my mom to Brazil. A sidenote here: my mom was exceedingly generous in financing my studies and getting me on my feet, so I take her on a nice trip every year. I keep an eye on my spending in this category, but I don’t obsessively budget for it, nor do I cut out experiences based on price alone if I think they’re worth it, within reasonable limits – I booked a $350 hotel inside of the Iguazu Falls park, for example, because why the fuck not. I won’t go out for lavish dinners every night, and I love street food as much as anybody, but if there’s an €80 mollusk platter on offer and I know the process of eating through it will give us a million funny stories to look back on years later, I’ll get the platter and tack on a bottle of sauvignon blanc (or two). I’d much rather enjoy that experience with my family than have an extra $100 sitting in savings, which is one of the most important things my first boss ever taught me – at the end of the day, it’s just money. If I have to cut out a four-cocktail night at some overpriced DC watering hole full of pumpkin spiced congressional staffers and bad taste wrapped in J.Crew to balance out those expenditures, everyone will surely be better off in the long run.

I do try to maximize benefits on travel, though – I booked a hotel in Rio through Rocketmiles, for instance, and expect to earn about 17,000 United miles on it. Another good option is and their “one night free per 10 nights stayed” promo, which one of my friends swears by. I won’t overpay to access promotional offers, that’s the oldest trick in the book and one you should never fall for, but if the price is comparable to what I’m seeing on Booking, miles or points or free nights are just free money waiting to be taken, so damn right I’m going to take it.

This brings me to another point – I’ve been working bit by bit on a post detailing exactly how to maximize credit card miles and points for super cheap travel. I know The Points Guy and others have written literal thousands of articles on the topic, but that’s just it, isn’t it – for someone just starting out, the flood of information you’re hit with online is virtually unintelligible and, it should be noted, almost always subjective, because most of these bloggers earn commission on application referrals. I’ll try to bridge that gap in my next post.


Four years of freelancing: what I’ve learned

I’ve been wanting to write this for a while, especially because I’ve seen so many listicles on this topic and they’re just always full of such banal advice. I hope what I provide below is helpful to others, no matter what stage of the process they’re at. I’ll leave out the platitudes that’ve been long overcooked: obviously you need to know how to price yourself, you have to have a good sales pitch, you have to know where to find clients and what they want to pay for, you have to be doing something you’re good at, etc. I’ll note that you do you, and YMMV, and I don’t pretend to be the ultimate authority on very much of anything, so on and so forth. As always, in the interests of transparency, I’ll try to make this post quite detailed.

What I do

I’ve been freelancing on the side for the past 4 years, it’s good money, and I don’t feel that my social life has suffered much at all. Freelancing has also helped me keep my skills sharp in an industry I half-left 5 years ago, and it’s meaningful work. I’m a political scientist by training, and because I needed to pay rent and eat at the same time, I left my nonprofit job once out of grad school to join a corporate intelligence consulting firm. ‘Twas a very long year and a half. I was very lucky to subsequently get a kickass offer from my current employer, but I left that corporate intel position with an extremely marketable skillset that’s sold very well thus far. I do research into people and companies in emerging markets with which my clients expect to do business, advising them on corruption, fraud, money laundering, hidden assets, bad lawsuits and negative publicity. It’s good work – at least it strives to be – in that I help keep dirty money out of the market, but the industry itself is still working out its own kinks, and clients vary widely.

Time and money

Most weeks, though not all, I freelance for anywhere between 4 and 20 hours, depending on the client, the project, the budget, the scope, etc. It’s usually closer to 4 than to 20, but I’ve started focusing more on longer, higher yield work. Again, depending on the project, I’ll charge either per hour or per report; my hourly rate starts at $65, and my project rate can be anywhere from $200 to $2,000. I set my rates based on the following factors:

1. Client longevity – how long have we been working together, how consistent has the flow of work from them been, and what have they gotten used to paying for comparable products.

2. Jurisdiction – U.S.-based projects are pretty much always the worst paid, even though they’re by far the most time-consuming, so I almost never take any. I prefer to work in the languages with which I’m most comfortable, like French or Russian, but I’ll also take most other Romance languages and/or anything with Slavic roots, both of which I can read at a decent speed. However, the more valuable (like Russian) or obscure (like Polish) the language required, the more I will generally charge.

3. Scope and turnaround time – the larger the scope and the shorter the turnaround time, the more it’ll cost, which is pretty self-explanatory. A simple Google search for negative publicity with a freeform narrative write-up may be $100, whereas a complex analytical report on hidden assets and embezzlement schemes can easily reach $1,000. My rush rates automatically double, primarily because I’ve learned that clients who require everything and faster and yesterday at 7 am London time are usually the ones to try to sneakily expand the scope beyond our contract after I submit my deliverables. This is true of any industry, of course, as Clients from Hell can confirm.

Me: I’m sorry, are you unhappy with the photos?

Client: Oh, I love them. But why do they cost money?

I always try to be unwavering in politeness yet firm as to the terms agreed upon, which can be a very delicate balancing act. I have vowed never to work with certain clients again for this reason.

When and how to work

I’ve learned that it’s very important to know when, where, and how you work best – for me it’s always at home, at a desk, evenings are best, and I need soft ambient light and no extraneous noise. No music with lyrics, and only light classical works, like Saint-Saëns or Tchaikovsky. In practice, however, it frequently looks like this:


In terms of accoutrements, the dawn of the millennial / side gig / sharing economy era has somehow convinced us millennials, reportedly the poorest paid and most undervalued generation ever, that we need all of the stuff!, and that it is only through the acquisition of said stuff! that we will become Real Profesh Freelance Slayers. The truth is, you almost certainly don’t need anything other than a computer, high-speed internet, and a comfortable place to work. I will say that I think co-working spaces are a total waste of time and money unless you’re a full-time freelancer and cannot, for whatever reason, work at home at all. In addition:

1. Pay attention to the type of lighting you prefer, which can make a huge difference in your mood and productivity. If you’re a bat like me and you prefer working after dark, invest (not too heavily) in the kind of light you like. I hate overhead lighting, so I got a $10 boule-shaped IKEA lamp that projects a soft glow from the corner. A former colleague of mine, a fantastic developer, used to hate light in general and would work in complete darkness in a freezing cold office (nicest guy in the world, for real). You do you, but if you feel yourself getting really tired or really annoyed by the work, change up your lighting and see if that helps.

2. Accessories, even cheap ones, can also provide a huge boost. I currently work on a 13″ Macbook Air, and I’ve had laptops with trackpads for the past 10 years, so I never really thought I needed to have a mouse. After having to put together an absolute nightmare of a report in split-screen windows with some pretty intense conversions of the dollar to the Ukrainian hryvnia, I figured maybe a mouse would make it a little easier to click back and forth. Night. And. Day. Now I don’t understand how I ever lived without a mouse. I got a Logitech one for $25 at my local Staples, it’s one of those fancy-shaped ones with precision scrolling, and it’s just been an absolute godsend. This is how I know I’m an adult.

3. Chargers, extension cords and other messy or uncomfortable things around you or in your line of vision can throw you off and quietly annoy you for hours, affecting your output without you even realizing it. Move everything out of sight and either create some visual horizon space in front of you or pack yourself cozily into a corner, depending on personal preference.

Invest in your business, but WISELY

Everyone has to invest in their business – I have to pay to retrieve certain documents from specific databases, for example. I’ll caveat this next bit by repeating that this is, of course, a matter of personal preference, you do you, we don’t know each other’s lives. However, dropping hundreds or even thousands of dollars on something just because it has a nice website and promises to completely transform your life, whether it’s access to a special portal, a B2B service, or a “coaching” program, is a bad, bad, very bad idea. Learn from my mistake: I just wasted $20+ buying individual documents from the paid version of a certain country’s corporate registry, then worried about whether I should be dropping $900 more on access to a fancy-looking portal, before realizing that all of the information I actually needed was available for free through a different section of the same website.

“Coaching” programs deserve a special shoutout as my most detested modern internet Thing, and when I watch people get conned into paying thousands of dollars for this nonsense, it gives me all of the angers. Whatever positive “effect” the followers of these programs claim is almost always a case of placebo buoyancy after weeks or months of being told that they’re super special unicorns endowed with magical powers to achieve unlimited greatness. Everyone likes being spoken to in those terms, but for most of us, that appropriately ended around age 5. Yet so many people, many of whom are already underfunded and already doubting themselves, still fall prey to the sleek marketing and the promises of grand life transformations, and when those transformations obviously fail, they’re left even worse off. The most perverse meta internet thing ever is people taking coaching courses to become coaches themselves (what?!); however, they’re clearly trying to learn how to con others, so I have little sympathy for them getting conned.

All successful people got to where they are through a random life lottery, which is a combination of family advantages, innate skills and talents, upbringing, and luck. No one has ever paid an online life coach $1,000 and risen astronomically to fame and fortune and a $1 billion valuation. Doesn’t work that way. Before investing in online courses and Facebook groups and anything with the word “success” in the title, think long and hard about what you hope to gain from it for your business, and really work out the pros and cons. A $1,000 vacation may give you a far bigger boost than a $1,000 lady in a hot pink frilled lizard nightmare telling you about your inner genius in a pre-recorded video that thousands of other schmucks are watching with you. Go to the shore and read some Kerouac or something. Chill. Think.

However, don’t scrimp where it could cost you in the long run. Buy reliable gadgets and keep a backup external hard drive. If you need to learn something new to simplify your workflow, invest in cheap skills-based courses like those on Udemy. (Note: Udemy frequently runs promotions where $300 courses drop to $20 or $30. Wait for any one of those before you buy anything. They’re usually offered every month).

Organize practically, not theoretically

An inevitable component of every listicle on freelancing ever is the organization bit – how important it is to schedule and plan and this and that. Yes, all of those things are true, but remain wary of spending too much time, effort or money on planning to do your work. This is a part of what I like to call my Just Fucking Do It approach, which involves sitting down and just fucking doing it. You don’t need a PhD in the theoretical underpinnings of time management. Don’t overthink it, use whatever feels right for you – I hate Google Calendar with the emotional intensity of an Hieronymous Bosch triptych, and I don’t know how they managed to make iCal even worse, so I use a $2 notebook in which I write with a standard pen of whatever color I happen to have handy. Some people like getting really creative with their planning, and the supposed superiority of these really involved lists is so heavily promoted that the temptation to sink into a washi taped ball pit of planners and highlighters is quite strong. If left to my own devices, I would live in a ball pit of highlighters, actually. However, if you’ve never been a “planner person”, which is the ultimate first world problem, buying a $50 Kate Spade one won’t help you. Point being, make it about the practice, not the theory, and focus on what works for you, not for others. How people learn the Morse code of these new bullet journal things I have no idea, because I, for one, scratch out my completed tasks in ink. Like a barbarian.

Don’t be afraid to say no

To clients who are a bad fit, to people who want you to do twice the work for half the price, to friends who may not understand why you need to stay home and finish your project, or to those you encounter who don’t know what they’re talking about. I once spent an afternoon explaining to a compliance team on Wall Street that the enactment of U.S. government sanctions against Serb war criminals does not, in fact, mean that we have severed diplomatic ties with Serbia. Really though. Also, Yugoslavia is no longer a country, and no, I do not speak Yugoslavakian, which has never actually been a thing. I refuse to put my name on anything that’s nonsensical or unethical, so I immediately turn down requests to “polish” investigative reports that reveal far more than what the client would like to send up to Legal. Consider not only liability but your reputation as well.


My cat believes in you. Godspeed.


Artificial Immersion in French

Today’s post has been a long time coming, and I’m hoping it can help readers who are trying to recreate an immersion environment for themselves in any language. First, by way of introduction: I’ve written about All Japanese All The Time before, which I think is a really fun resource for language learners in general, and his approach is exactly as described – all Japanese, all the time. I can’t (yet) go 24/7 with French because I have to work (a lot) in English and Russian, but I’ve been trying to slot it in wherever possible, even if it’s in 5-minute increments. Hey, every little bit helps.

Rule #1: Do What You Love

It’s really important to underscore that I don’t view this as a chore, as homework, as work, or as an obligation, because I really do just love French that much. I think some people make the mistake of miscalculating time commitments, misaligning goals, or focusing too much on metrics of words studied, books finished, levels attained, etc. Language studies then become something they feel like they “have” to do, and they talk a lot about “accountability” and “motivation”. I have very few problems with either – this is what I choose to do with my free time. I get feeling that way if you really do have to learn a language, say, for work, or to pass a required course at school, but for recreational learners, it shouldn’t feel like such a hassle! I can see “accountability” and “motivation” coming into play for things like budgeting or work deadlines, but languages are supposed to be fun. If you’re not having fun, reconsider your methods, goals, or interests.

Ben, MAMAC, Nice.
Ben, MAMAC, Nice.

As a corollary to that, I think it’s really important to focus on three things:

1. Doing what you love with the language you’re learning

For me that’s politics (with some history and art thrown in), for others it may be art, or sports, or whatever else. Once you’ve mastered the basics, and I’ll honestly say about 75% of a Duolingo course should be enough for that, go out and find material in that language that conforms to your interests and needs. For more common languages like French, the wealth of material at your disposal is quite literally limitless. You can read all of Wikipedia on topics that interest you. You can read blogs covering just about any topic, you also have the news, radio, discussion forums, Youtube, whatever – you face absolutely no obstacles in getting native material, so why force yourself to suffer through a long book on a subject that does nothing for you when you could be reading a dozen blogs you’re super keen on? Texts in test prep books bore me to death, for instance, and nothing can make me watch movies in which I have no interest by default, but I will always choose to spend hours and hours watching French political talk shows or reading the books I hoard off of This is why I never view French as a chore or obligation, but rather as something I always want to be doing right now. If I come across a show I’m bored by, I immediately switch to something else – a different video, a book, an article – and I never waste any time interacting with material I don’t find interesting. This has not been an issue that’s come up frequently with French, however, even though I tend to get bored easily and I know I have trouble concentrating. That’s partially because France has such a vibrant political culture that boredom just never happens, and partially because I know myself well enough to quickly determine whether something will hold my attention. Closely related to that is point number 2…

2. Go native early and often

When you do dive into the material you like, go straight to the native stuff – original TV shows, movies shot by popular directors starring popular actors, books that people are talking about or those that won literary prizes, subject-based columns in leading newspapers. The whole reason we learn languages is to be able to immerse ourselves in other cultures, right? Why limit yourself to  dubbed American TV shows or abridged “readers” specifically designed for foreigners? Go straight to the juicy stuff. Find out what people are talking about, reading, listening to, watching right now. The summer before my sophomore year of high school, after I’d switched schools back and forth and had basically missed out on a year of instruction, I started picking up girly French magazines at a nearby Borders. I couldn’t understand half of what I was reading at the beginning, but it eventually started making sense. Undoubtedly, that was the one thing that pushed my French from typical grade school level to something that could be massaged into actual working command of the language, and going all-in native really helped me develop a deep appreciation for the country/history/culture/etc later on. If you’re an intermediate learner or above and you have no interaction with native material, written by native speakers for native speakers, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

3. Forget it’s in French/Language X

Let yourself “fall into” native material. That may not be the most elegant way of putting it, but there quickly comes a point when you forget you’re watching or reading something in French or for the purpose of learning French, and you’re just reading or watching that material, full stop. Let yourself forget that. Don’t focus on remembering words or underlining sentences. Just read, or watch, or listen. Let your brain trick itself into thinking that reading/watching something in that language is completely natural to you, because very soon it will be. That’s what immersion is.

For the longest time, one of the big debates in France was over la déchéance de la nationalité, or stripping individuals convicted of certain crimes of French citizenship. I’m pretty sure I had never encountered the word déchéance before, but I instinctively understood what it was when it first came on the news, and it’s still hard for me to explain it in any other language – in fact, it took about 20 seconds just now for me to come up with that phrase above in English, and it’s still hardly the most eloquent explanation. The point, though, is that this is how I know my immersion is working – I’m no longer matching up French words to their English equivalents, I’m simply understanding a term, and it happens to be in French, but that’s entirely secondary.

Ben, MAMAC, Nice
Ben, MAMAC, Nice

My Daily Methods

With that said, here’s what I do every day:

  • iOS on my phone is set to French. My computer isn’t (I don’t know why, I should probably change that). Any time I’m interacting with my phone, which is all the time, I’m seeing French somewhere. With iOS in French, all of my apps default to French, and Google spits out French results first. It’s awesome.
  • I wake up and turn on BFMTV live. It’s usually on for anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour in the morning, which lets me stay plugged into all French current events.
  • On my commute (~ 30 mins), I listen to France Info on their app, which is actually quite good. If I feel like I need quiet, I’ll read a French book. By the time I get to work at 9, I’ve already had 90 minutes of pure French input.
  • My immersion morning continues while I read the Le Monde daily email brief. If I see anything interesting in there or on social media, I’ll read through some articles, usually 5-10 a day from different sources. I follow all the major French dailies on Facebook, so major scoops show up in my news feed.
  • I work in English, but sometimes, I have to spend time on things that require no intelligent thought production – formatting large documents, creating databases, etc. Whenever that happens, usually a few times a week, I have the France Info app on. If there’s something big happening in France, particularly something that concerns my work, like a security incident or a raid, I’ll have BFMTV on and Twitter open. Legitimate work + in French = ❤
  • Over lunch and/or at the gym, it’s always all French all the time. Over lunch I try to read books or blogs, and at the gym I’m almost always watching a documentary conveniently timed to the length of my workout. Huzzah.
  • If I have no plans for the evening, I do another 30 minutes of French radio or a French book on my commute home. This is where things get hot!
  • Any chores I have to do at home are accompanied by either BFMTV or France Info. If the topics or spots get repetitive, or if I’m not interested in whatever’s on, I switch to a talk show or a vlog I like, usually something talking-head style where I don’t have to focus on the picture. I never force myself to listen to anything I don’t like, and I always have something else lined up, so there are no breaks. I do absolutely everything with French on in the background, except for writing in any other language. If I had to pick a single thing that’s made the biggest difference in recent months, it’s been this bit – getting lots and lots of exposure to normal native speakers talking about things they like in a way that’s completely natural to them.
  • There are usually a few hours of freelance I have to get done, which is almost never in French (boo). Because my freelance work depends on conducting research in not-French, I have to make a conscious (and painful) choice to switch off and focus entirely on input in another language and output in English, since my work product is a set of narrative reports that have to be elegant and precise. If the research I’m doing is in English or Russian, I usually get through it pretty quickly with minimal brainfarts, but if it’s in a related language with which I’m not comfortable, like Ukrainian or Bulgarian, my brain turns into green goo and sort of slithers out of my ears. Sort of.
  • After that, when I can focus on what’s in a book or on a screen, I’ll either read or find more videos to watch in French – again, it’s important to note that there is infinite material out there to suit just about anybody, so boredom is never even an option.
  • Before I go to bed, I read for anywhere from 15-30 minutes, all in French. This ensures I fall asleep with French and wake up with French, in a beautiful virtuous French circle of French sleep. I know there are people who fall asleep to the radio in their language of study, but I hate grumbling, so that won’t work for me. However, this is perfect for people who like sleeping with white noise.

Best of all, with the exception of my books, this is all absolutely free. So really it’s only about €100 / month, because I have no self-control on French Amazon.

Ben, MAMAC, Nice
Ben, MAMAC, Nice

If you’re learning a language and trying to create an artificial immersion environment, I’d love to hear what works for you!

Made in France

Made in France: Words of Presidents

It’s been an exciting few days for French presidents past and present! I mentioned the publication of Mitterrand’s letters to Anne Pingeot in my last post, and now France Culture’s five-part podcast with Pingeot is online, and OMG. I highly recommend you give it a listen if you love anything at all about France – she’s so incredibly vivacious, graceful, and wise, and she talks about social norms, the history of the Musée d’Orsay, art critics of the 1960s, politics, love, life, just everything. It’s an incredible piece of French oral history.

In less jovial (for some) news, Un président ne devrait dire ça… joins Mitterrand’s letters in my cart until I finish all of my work obligations in an box on its way to me (I’m weak); it looks to be a ravishing read – discussions with Hollande transcribed by two Le Monde journalists. Some are calling it political suicide, which I won’t necessarily disagree with, but I’m ever curious to learn more about why he chose to do the discussion series in the first place – was it a desire to take charge of communications and manage the media that sort of grew horns and fangs? A good plan that didn’t turn out so hot? A philosophical pitch? How will this affect the upcoming presidential race (which is supposed to launch in December and which is 100% my most excitedly anticipated event of the year)?

I really enjoyed the below edition of “On n’est pas couché” about the book, particularly their analysis of his language. Put anything about French political language in front of me and I’ll savor it for hours on autopilot, but this truly was a fascinating show.

French, Made in France

An Educated Citizenry

Our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and Will McAvoy, held one particular truth to be self-evident, and that was that an educated citizenry is vital to the functioning of a democratic state. If you live in the U.S., you’ve probably noticed that we’ve had some… troubles… lately. If you live elsewhere, you’ve likely heard of the same. I make a conscious choice to mostly avoid American television, half driven by the need to focus on native French material, but we watched a lot of CNN in Honduras, and at one point I looked over at my friend like, hey, remember back when the big issue was that the Republican candidate referred to the “binders full of women” he wanted to hire, and we were all like, holy shit, what, how dare he say such a thing? Yeah, wasn’t that a great time?

Anyway. One thing I’d never really paid specific attention to until recently, although I certainly must have intuitively sensed it, is that French political culture is very, shall we say, different. During the last U.S. presidential debate, we talked a bit about what type of grabbing as performed by a candidate for the highest office of the land constitutes sexual assault, and concluded by determining we know nothing about Russia. The text of what was actually said was at about a 3rd grade reading level, and I have no clue what policy proposals were actually put forth.

The last time the French had a presidential debate, things went a little, shall we say, differently.

So here’s what I’m seeing: here we have two highly intelligent (you can disagree with them on principle, but you can’t begrudge them that), exceedingly well spoken (again – I disagree with the Le Pens on literally everything and I still think both Marine and Marion speak very well) candidates who 1) know all the facts and figures and 2) have specific, concrete policy proposals. In the first 10 minutes alone, each put forth 4 pieces of legislation they would enact, down to the rate of a single component of the corporate tax structure that would incentivize specific types of corporations to participate in the rollout of a major  government-backed employment scheme. Ten minutes later, they were arguing over the social VAT rate in Germany (!) and whether its macroeconomic consequences contain lessons for French public finance. Twenty minutes after that, the moderators finally lost it, and not because one of them had admitted to a violent felony on national television – no, they were simply too wrapped up in their debate on the indexation of minimum wage, whereas the moderators’ timeline would have them going on to discuss  fluctuations in purchasing power.

So, yeah. Not quite the same. Most significantly, they treat the viewers – their voters – with the respect they deserve, talking about important issues with the depth and finesse necessary to ensure they never demean the intelligence of the electorate. Perhaps this is why we haven’t had a Frexit – the French expect to be listening to experts.

In other French presidential news, Gallimard recently published Mitterrand’s letters to his lover, Anne Pingeot, which are sitting in my basket but which I will. not. buy. until I’m done with my existing stack of books. The temptation is super strong, though, because here’s how one critic described it:

Cette correspondance amoureuse, par sa longévité, son intensité, son exclusivité, sa clandestinité et surtout sa qualité littéraire, défie en effet la raison politique. Si elle confirme le talent singulier du Mitterrand écrivain, qui fut notre dernier président à vénérer la langue française, user du subjonctif passé, connaître le chromatisme des métaphores et pouvoir écrire, comme ici, de vibrants poèmes d’amour, elle corrige, en le réévaluant à la hausse, en lui ajoutant soudain un tremblé inédit, le portrait doré à l’or fin du monarque florentin, volage, infidèle et cynique.

Aaaaahhhh want want want. I had to LOL at the reference to subjonctif passé – if only the American people had that type of political problem.

In short, this looks totally magnificent and I can’t wait to dig in.

Finances, French

Timeboxing 36 hours a day

I was away for a week in Roatan, a Honduran tropical paradise island known for its biodiversity and scuba sites. Originally, the point of the trip was to get PADI certified, but I came down with an awful cold and, separately, decided that I just really didn’t like scuba diving, and that’s okay. Also okay – our dinner views:


That said, I got a decent amount of French reading done, upwards of 300 pages of modern non-fiction. On the budgeting side, however, I’m seeing some deficiencies, which will be a topic for another post.

The main problem I’m having right now is figuring out how to fit everything in: from the beginning, I’ve noted that my two main areas of focus are bringing my French up and being able to adequately finance this adventure. This means that between sleep, my day job, sufficient French practice (4-5 hours per day), and sufficient freelance work, I need to have about 36 hours in a day. I am told that timeboxing is a popular method, where you set specific timeframes for each activity and focus on nothing else, but I’m afraid I’m not off to a very good start – according to my timebox for the day, I’m supposed to be doing freelance work right now, and yet here we are. I’ll be on the lookout for better methods – I know I can’t become a planner person, it’s just too much color-coding and tape, plus I need another thing to carry like I need a herd of wild goats in my handbag. I don’t want to waste too much time on trying to find a perfect theoretical model here, where I end up spending more time studying the method than putting in the actual work, but I am interested in the psychology of organization to see what I can figure out from that.

The very good news, though, is that my big freelance project finally came in, and I hope to make about $15,000 on it over the last three months of the year. That cushion would really help with planning for future expenses, except I need to shave hours off of sleep to get the work in. I also can’t let anything slide at my actual job and can’t completely ignore my friends. Oh, and I’m also going to Brazil for 10 days in the middle of all of this. How this is going to work I have no idea.

For my latest experiment, I’m going to try the Pomodoro thing in a minute and try to chill out. At the end of the month, I’ll report back both on time management and money management, with the latter, despite the generous freelance dossier, being in far from the greatest shape.


Roundup, Vol 1.

I’ve collected a few little things worth sharing that don’t really merit entire separate posts. Behold!


Over the past two weeks, I was incredibly lucky to have been offered several freelance projects with generous budgets. As a result, I’m now sitting at just a tiny bit under $40,000 in savings, which puts me very slightly ahead of my savings schedule. I have a big (and very transparent!) budget post coming soon – it’s taken so long to prepare that now all my calculations are off, actually – as well as an essay I’d been meaning to write for a while on my experience with freelancing, some of the issues I’ve encountered in the past, and some of the parts of the process with which I still struggle. If there’s anything in particular you’d like me to cover on this (or any other) topic, feel free to leave a comment below.

French things I’ve enjoyed

I watch a lot of archived French political talk shows on Youtube, and one of the most interesting episodes I’ve found was an October 2014 appearance by Éric Zemmour on On n’est pas couché. Zemmour’s much-discussed and widely reviled book, Le Suicide Français, had just come out, and the panel just went to town on him. Let me take a moment to note that while I disagree with Zemmour on pretty much absolutely everything, I will never pass up an opportunity to read a controversial book, much less so one about de Gaulle and Gaullism and the history of the V Republic, so I’m reading it now (there’s definitely a lot of eye-rolling happening, rest assured). Anyway, what I loved about this particular episode was the depth and breadth of the debate, the passion with which each side approached its arguments, and that final grilling of Zemmour on his “re-evaluation” of Vichy and Pétain, which is an example of the type of conversation no modern democracy should ever shy away from. What made me sad was that I can’t remember the last time I saw anything even remotely similar on an American news network, save for maybe when Christiane Amanpour was given 2 minutes and 45 seconds to take Clinton to task on failing to act in Bosnia.  ‘Twas the year 1994, and I was in 4th grade. That’s just… tragic.

Langue de bois

“Langue de bois” – literally, wooden language – is a French term used to refer to language that’s deliberately vague, unnecessarily complex, and ultimately meaningless. Build your own phrases in langue de bois with this handy (satirical) flowchart, or generate a ready-made statement here.