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Friday, December 30, 2011

The Parasite's Paradise

Anyone wanting to work in Paris, and especially on Montmartre, take heed. You need eye surgery. The kind where an extra pair of eyes is surgically attached on your back. I wish I would have figured this out on my own, without having half of Paris's crooks both having a laugh and gaining a living on my expense. As I'm older and wiser now - or just older- I feel I need to share my pitiful story.

As a starving artist paying almost an 800e/month rent, I needed a 'day job', and the one that I got was as a sales woman and later a store manager of a Balinese hippie goods store on Montmartre. Maybe you've seen it. It's yellow. The yellow store also featured jewelry. Those silver rings that are so cheap you can put one on every single one of your fingers and toes and not go bankrupt. There were two glass cases with four boxes of these silver rings each, and since Paris is, besides being the city of Light and Romance and dog poop, a shoplifter's paradise, I had to watch out on a daily basis. 

I had worked for almost three years in the yellow store and had my share of  the parasites that are shoplifters. One gorgeously handsome guy shamelessly flirted with me and before breaking into a run, winked and waved to me with the bunch of hats he was about to steal. I waved back, lost in his black eyes, and by the time I noticed what he had taken, he was probably already in the metro picking stupid tourist women's pockets.  There were regulars, of course; one very chic middle-aged lady that smelled of expensive perfume couldn't leave the store without at least attempting to steal balinese baggy trousers of which the monetary value probably represented 0,000000001% of her daily income. Another one, an old woman with a face that had caved in as a result of lengthy drug-abuse, immediately steered towards the last row of clothes where she figured I couldn't see her stuff goods inside her overcoat. And then there was that incident when my ow handbag was stolen from the employees' toilet (how it was done, I never figured out. As a result, every lock in the store, plus the ones of my home, had to be changed on a sunday night). But anyhow, that day as I was approaching the end of my employment in the yellow hippie goods store, I was icing a bottle of Deutz champagne - no more shoplifters for me, I was going to be a bona fide singer-songwriter without a day job!

It was a busy afternoon, and the little corner store was swarming with tourists and locals. All the dressing booths were full and needed supervision; every square inch of the place had someone requiring my attention. In three years, I was accustomed to this, and wasn't at all worried. 

An american lady called me over and asked to see the silver rings from the glass case. All right, I said, I would be right with her; I just had to go check the dressing booths first, but if she wanted, she could pick the one she wanted to try from the case and I would give it to her upon my return. 'OK', she smiled, 'I'd love to do that, but could you bring me the rings?' Silence. 'Bring?' I enquired, with a benign smile. 'What ever can you mean?' 'Oh, just that the nice man who just took the rings said you'd have some more to show me.' I looked inside the glass case that normally had four filled boxes of silver rings. Empty. 'The man said he was taking the rings to be cleaned', said the lady, still smiling. My smile on the other hand had turned into a rictus grin, as I slowly realized that someone had just stolen four boxes of rings from a closed glass case, right under my unfailing eyes.

This story has an appendix ending - if not a happy one, a funny one. One night, me and the spouse were heading into the giant movie theatre on Boulevard des Italiens. It was a nippy winter's night, and the street vendors were jumping on the spot, clapping their hands and calling out for customers. There was one guy who captured my full attention. 'Silver rings!' he shouted, 'Silver rings, just ten euros! A special price for you, my friend!' We walked over to the guy, and amusingly enough, I recognized the rings. Hell, I even recognized the serial number tags, painstakingly handwritten on little tags hanging on every single ring. 'Genuine silver, Madame', the guy smiled, 'real silver! Check it out if you want! It's all on the tags!' I looked at him, slowly, smiling mysteriously like an Indian deity. 'I should know, sir', I told him. 'I wrote those damn tags myself.'

Thursday, December 8, 2011

On finding your inner Frenchman

It took me five years not to constantly try to change the population of France into behaving and thinking like me. During those five years, it almost drove me insane. Sometimes I'd be so angry at an entire nation I'd just shake and leer from morning 'till night. Pitiful, isn't it, considering I simultaneously loved living here. 

I've conducted my own empirical research about any given expat's first years in France, and basically everyone goes through this same phase. It's the phase I like to call  'I love France but dislike the French' -phase. It's interesting, because it just might be the only time in your life that you experience passionate love and teeth-clenching hate at the same time (besides that time when your first True Love told you he 'needs more space' when you knew perfectly well he has his eyes and other body parts on the girl next dorm). 

But then one beautiful morning - the hate is gone. You wake up and notice it's been replaced by a benign, benevolent understanding and acceptance, not unlike the one you feel for your dog when finding its excrement in your new hat. You've entered a brand new period, the one I like to call the 'Finding your inner Frenchman'-phase. I know all about it, because am wrestling with it at this very moment.

A few hot tips for your research of that beret-headed, Pastis-smelling, explosive, mustachioed Frenchman inside yourself.

  1. It's a lot like high-school acting classes. You've been given a role you're not really comfortable with (like that time they asked you to identify with a cannibalistic vegetarian samurai) but which is interesting nonetheless, and you give it all you've got.
  2. Your role has everything to do with your sex, and from now on, you need to attempt to behave accordingly. (This was the hardest part for me, being a man-of-the-house Nordic woman.)
  3. You need to look for the right questions, not necessarily the right answers. I've found a few such questions, very dear to all Frenchmen. What's for dinner? And what wine goes with that dinner? What's the perfect cheese to top it all? What if I can't find a local cheese that goes with the wine that goes with the dinner? 
  4. File everything. 'La paperasse', paperwork, is your friend, and as such should be profoundly understood and cherished. There may be a day when you get a letter enquiring after the exact amount of your water bill of 1982, and you'd better have the old water bill handy, or the enquiries will swallow your whole existence.
  5. OK, so this is as far as I've gotten.

I have, on occasion, caught a glimpse of my inner Frenchman. Once when tasting a fully mature cider with a fully mature Camembert. Another time when attending an old lady's funeral and being asked to play the organ next to her coffin. Another time when getting fresh bread on a foggy morning in my medieval village, and smelling some villager's fireplace being lit. This morning when my child started screaming in the supermarket and the French ladies around me didn't tut or shake their heads but smiled patiently. It's a peaceful feeling, finding that inner Mr Dupont. Because for so many years, when he would have been so helpful in various hellish Parisian situations, he was nowhere to be found. Instead, I found him lurking in this tiny picturesque Southern French village, drinking a Ricard by the counter of Café des Voyageurs. And having found the elusive Mr Frenchman, there's no way I'm letting him get away.
Eh non, Monsieur. I'm here to stay, and so are you.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Liberté, Egalité, Je Sais Cuisiner

This blog was first written for the fabulous web magazine that is My French Life. 

Being an arduous lover of all things gourmet, it's no wonder I decided to settle in France. How can you not love a country where everything you do seems to revolve around one question: 'What's for dinner?' This was a revolutionary way of life for me, at first. After all, my fellow countryman the Finn settles his stomach with any given portion as long as it's large, without giving another thought to his taste buds. The poor things can remain comatose for all of their life span. (The Finn's taste buds, not the Finn. The Finn is comatose only at winter, but that's another story.)

Upon my first arrival in France, I remember staring in wonder at the French time-honored institution that is 'Menu Ouvrier', the working man's menu. In any given village café, ruddy-complexioned, large-handed men eat a lunch of three or four-courses, gulping it down with a carafe of local red wine. And the menus are good. Wholesome, delicious country cooking, smelly and runny cheeses, crunchy and unctuous desserts and a dainty but strong café express. After my childhood summers spent in the Sancerrois countryside, I had to move back to Finland and then to the USA, but I somehow just knew my stomach would find its way back to the paradise it had once found – the French table.

But after settling permanently in the French countryside, I found myself willing to prove myself worthy of having a French kitchen of my own. And what could have been more helpful to a blundering novice of a Finn that I was than the Frenchman's culinary bible: 'Je Sais Cuisiner'.

A book of very little charm it is, judging by its cover. I was struck by its lack of the usual French subtle but tasteful design. It's a thick, lurid yellow slab of a book with an unlikely cover illustration portraying a woman stirring a salad while intensely looking at her cook book as if she indeed needed instruction in performing her meager task. The kitchen in which she stands is a boring, white and brown plywood booth with a -gasp- microwave oven lurking on the counter. I mean, even the name of the book is straight out of my childhood cooking lessons. 'I know how to cook.' The woman on the cover sure doesn't look like she does. The layout of the epos is boring beyond a yawn. But do not be fooled by its meek appearance! For the recipes are the stuff France is made of. Pure culinary genius.

In fact, I don't think I'll ever have to open another French history book if I have this one in my home library. The history of France is luxuriously laid out on the pages of this apparently tiresome volume. 'Crème Pompadour'. One imagines the king's lover nibbling away at her tri-colored cream mousse with a subtle coffee flavor. 'Crème Dubarry'. Another royal mistress, but this time it's a surprising recipe of a sumptuous cauliflower soup. There are numerous recipes 'à la Reine'; I am particularly in awe when imagining the taste of 'Riz à la Reine', a masterpiece of quenelles and cream.

Contrasting with these creamy, queenly, feminine dishes are some testosterone-packed sauces destined to drown steaks or game. 'Sauce Châteaubriand', a deep, dark, mushroomy sauce fit for a state dinner. 'Sauce Cardinal', a strangely orange anchovy-and-lobster sauce for a clergyman's pass-over fish supper. To finish a manly and historic dining experience, our book recommends 'Sorbet Armagnac'.

The French do eat everything that moves, and 'Je Sais Cuisiner' is full of intriguing recipes for abats, the edible offal. There is a variety of recipes for preparing a lamb's brain or it's feet. There is actually something called 'Hoof salad', a dish that sounds as delicious as 'Veal-head doughnuts' or 'Chopped head cheese'. The traditional delicacies, tripe and roasted tongue, are not forgotten either, but I pass on to recipes that are more useful in my own kitchen.

The humble egg gets an entire section. Eggs of all nationalities are represented. This is like egg United Nations: Eggs New York, Eggs Milanese and Napolitaine, Turkish and Turban eggs, Russian Tsar eggs, Swedish, Belgian, Italian eggs, Parisian eggs, and even something that is called 'omelette Allemande', German omelette. There are other foods with nationalities, many of them. And a very colonial dessert called 'Négre en Chemise', the negro in a shirt.

I'm fascinated by the multitude of professions that have their own dish. 'Macaroni Financière.' 'Truite Diplomate'. 'Moules Marinière'. Sauce Maître d'Hôtel'. And some odd courses like 'gardener's tongue' and 'baker's shoulder'. For equality's sake, 'Castle owner's cabbage' and 'Poor man's sauce' are found side by side, as are 'Sauce Cardinal' and 'Sauce Diable'.

And the French do think of everything, for at the end of this respectable culinary opus there is ample advice for those that suffer of constipation. One advice mystifies me, though. It states that a person that needs to lighten up his food in order to relieve his constipation needs to make a slight change while whipping up the buttery French classic 'sauce Béchamel'. In the diet version, water in the sauce is to be replaced with milk.

For what it's worth, I have become a better cook and a better person because of the jewel that is 'Je Sais Cuisiner'. I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wishes to enter, even briefly, the Frenchman's ésprit. And yes, this fabulous book does contain the original recipe for French Fries. After a long search, I found it under the poetic yet historic title 'Pommes de Terre Pont-Neuf'.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Trumpet Player

After all the Paris-bashing that can sometimes slip from my lips, I have to apologize. I haven't been completely honest. It's just sometimes so much fun to vent in one's blog, but the truth is - I wouldn't even mention Paris if I hadn't had a blast while living there. But as you know, one's memory is selective, and has the tendency to overreact. You know. If a meal in a restaurant is fairly OK, we (especially women) tend to overzealously call it 'the most fabulous meal I ever ate'. If a movie was relatively dull, we screech about it being 'the lousiest piece of crap that was ever smeared on a movie screen.' If we've lived through some annoying experiences in a city, we roll our eyes and name it an 'absolutely inhuman hell-hole'. And me? Well, I'm a nuclear over-reactor.

Still, the stories I have told about my life in Paris and here in the southern French country side, however pity-inducing or laughable, are all true.  There is one particularly fun memory I'd like to share with you. This is meant especially those aspiring musicians, painters, students and altogether starving artists that wish more than anything to try to make it big in Paris. Go for it, my friends. For I do not believe this story could have happened in the countryside...

Our band was playing what felt like the thousandth evening in a small piano bar at rue Daunou, the one next to Harry's Bar and close to the old Opéra. It must have been two thirty at night, and the party was just getting going. We knew we had at least another two hours to go before we could stop, and we had had a few 'kir's to get that extra energy boost. I was singing my heart out about the son of a preacher man, when I saw a tall man with long dread locks enter the bar. He had a drink and watched us play, and tried to hit on a young woman sitting next to him, apparently with no luck. When we took our pause, he came to ask if he could come and play with us for a while. 'What do you play?', I asked. 'Oh, a little bit of this, a little bit of that', he said. 'Hang on, I'll go get my trumpet from my hotel room', he said and disappeared in to the night. I thought that was the last we'd see of him, but the man came swiftly back and when we started again, he jammed with us.

We had a really fun evening, or should I say morning. When we finally stopped playing at four thirty, the guy told the young woman at the counter to come hear him play the following day. The lady didn't look that interested, but the musician was genial - he beamed at us and asked if we'd want to come hear his gig. We had nothing specific to do and so we said yes. He told his name and gave the name of his hotel. 'Call me tomorrow morning at ten', he said, 'I'll take down your names and give them to the door man tomorrow.' Slightly swaying, he left for his hotel, and we packed the car to go home. Outide the bar, the young lady from the counter warned us: 'Be careful with that guy. I'm sure as hell I won't go anywhere to see his gig! He said it was in some pub called 'Bar des Sports',  and you know what those are like!' She strutted off, and we shrugged - hey, what the heck. We like music pubs. The musician had been nice and we still held on to our plans to go see him play the next day, at the 'Bar des Sports', wherever that was.

The following morning I dialed the hotel's number. 'Ritz Paris, bonjour,' a man answered. 'Oh, umm, can you put me through to room five oh six, please?' 'Certainly, ma'am', he said. The phone rang in room 506 for quite some time before the musician answered. He took a while to remember who I was, but as I explained too him we had jammed the night before, he seemed to remember us. 'Oh. OK. Here's the address, show up at quarter to seven tonight. I'll give your names for the doorman', he mumbled and hung up.

We looked for a while before finding the address he had given. After searching for a while we realized the place he had mentioned with his american-accented french wasn't Bar des Sports at all. It was the 'Palais des Sports', an immense concert and congress hall. We shrugged and went to see one of the doormen. He eyeballed us for a while but took our names and went somewhere to verify the list. A long line of viewers was forming a queue at each door. I had time to finish a cigarette as the doorman came back and asked us to follow him.

We followed the man through long hallways into the gigantic concert hall, where he directed us to be seated right in the middle and on the fourth row. I grimaced thinking about what would happen next - we would be chased off our exclusive seats when he figured we hadn't paid for them. But the doorman dug something out of his bag. 'Here', he gave us each a plastic card. 'These are your VIP passes. When the show is over, stay seated until the hall is empty; you will then be called to the back stage. Have a good concert.'

We sat, stunned, as the lights went down and the crowd cheered. The musicians, one by one, filled the stage, among them the trumpet player - who was also a pianist, percussionist, accordionist and band leader. The last person to join the band, accompanied by a standing ovation, was Paul Simon.

After the show, we were invited backstage as promised, and we got to meet the musicians and Paul Simon. Unfortunately, I never saw the trumpet player again.

The following night, we went back to play in our piano bar, wondering who would walk in next, just happy to be there, alive, exhilarated. In Paris.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Village people

I recently got a permit to teach music in French primary school, an accomplishment of which I'm extremely proud. I gave it my best, and the inspector who was there to approve or disapprove my methods asked me: 'Why on earth are you here, in this small village? Why aren't you in Paris or Toulouse?' I didn't know what to answer, not instantaneously. There are so many little details why I prefer village living to big town living, which one was the top reason? When I got back home, I started making a list. Why did I love living in Paris? Why do I love living in Villecomtal, population 412?


  1. is the City Of Opportunity. For an aspiring musician, it's heaven. Underpaid heaven, but heaven still. Where else can you find yourself jamming with internationally renowned musicians at the end of a bar tour? Where else can you find the world's top musicians to play on your album (if you can afford them)? There are so many music pubs and clubs, you always get a gig. Sometimes you may even get paid for it.
  2. is beautiful. I used to work at Montmartre but lived next to Musée d'Orsay, and always walked across the city just because it was so damn gorgeous. Crossing the Pont Royal at sunrise, walking up rue Sainte Anne and all those japanese restaurants crammed in medieval townhouses. Up across the Grands Boulevards passing tens and tens of  Haussmann-styled bourgeois buildings, gleaming cream-colored jewels with dark-green doors. Uphill past the 9th arrondissement, past the little dimly-lit bars where expensive drinks and women were available from dusk 'till dawn. Past Pigalle and Moulin Rouge, up the cobblestone alleys, catching fabulous smells from the cheese or chocolate stores, carefully avoiding the various dog turds that spread out through Paris like a stinky minefield. 
  3. is ever-changing. If you're bored, that never lasts long. You just change your 'arrondissement'. From artistic to bourgeois to chic, to ethnic to glamorous to chaotic. Never a dull moment.
  4. is filled with movie theaters. I'm a sucker for old films, most of which were constantly playing in Paris' hundreds of theaters - theaters that look like old-fashioned movie theaters should, along with red velvet seats, shaggy carpeting, gilded angels on the domed ceiling, dusty smell and heavy curtains in front of the screen.
  5. has fabulous food. Max Poîlane bakers' shop on rue Brancion (15ème) is as if you stepped into the 1920's. Le Petit St. Benoît restaurant on rue Saint-Benoît (6ème) that looks and tasted exactly the same as it did in the 1950's. La Grande Epicerie on rue de Bac (6ème) is the Mecca of food fanatics. Mariage Frères tea rooms (7ème, 17ème, 4ème) in which the Sakura green tea with cherry blossoms is beyond comparison. I feel silly even writing this list, for books and volumes have been written about culinary wanderings in Paris. (It also has some of the worse restaurants on the planet, but they do not belong on my 'why I love Paris' list).
  6. has history written all over it. For a history buff, it's miraculous to walk the streets of Paris. Every turn in history is so clearly visible in its meticulously preserved architecture.
  7. is where public transportation is great, and it means you don't really need a car.

  1. is where one's will power and imagination is measured. Since I had imagined the professional opportunity doesn't exactly knock on your door in the countryside, I had to become creative and use my long-lost talents in finding work. Instead of giving concerts, I have concentrated on studio work, song writing, album-making, wedding song wielding, pedagogy and teaching. And since there are so few artists and musicians around, I'm suddenly employed to the max. What's amazing, I've actually had people knock on my door, offering work.
  2. is beautiful. Stepping outside my door, nothing but ancient red-stone houses, small alleyways, ancient gateways... and then, rivers, mountains, oak and chestnut trees, castles and chapels. An added plus is that I seem to be the only one around that takes walks, so I can enjoy this magnificent nature alone, with my family, or with a few given wild boar or deer. And all of this this in my village alone. The surrounding villages are some of the most unbelievably breath-taking places I've ever seen - Conques, Estaing, Rodelle, Bozouls, St Jean-le Froid, and on and on the list goes.
  3. is unflinching. I think the last village renovation dates in the 13th century. This village has even had the same families living in it for hundreds of years. A stroll in the cemetery confirms this. 
  4. is quiet. Apart from miaowing cats, owls and birds of all sorts and the occasional cough from the old man next door, there is a blissful silence that makes it wonderful to fall asleep and to wake up.
  5. has wonderful food. The working man's lunch at Café des Voyageurs, made by the Ukrainian chef and bar owner Hanna, is savorous and interesting, along with a cheese platter enough to make you dizzy. The 'Auberge de la Cascade' in nearby Polissal is country cooking at its best - wholesome, greasy and tasty. The 'Auberge du Château' in Muret-le Château is fine gourmet food, beautifully arranged of exceptional quality ingredients. Another Auberge, that of Rodelle, has a worker's menu that one can easily imagine having been the same for 200 years. And I love Roquefort.
  6. has history written all over it. This goes without saying, but this is one of the oldest parts of France, and it shows. 
  7. has friendly people. At first, friendly as towards a tourist; then, friendly as towards a neighbor. 
  8. makes it possible to live inexpensively. Rent is cheap, buying a house is cheap, food is cheap. Only gasoline isn't, and you do need a car should you want to go anywhere. Unless you're an athletic bicycling machine, which I am not.
Hmmm. Both locations have immense, sometimes matching qualities. (Except for the friendliness, that I cannot honestly say I've ever found in Paris. Nor any movie theaters in the countryside.) Can an expat truly feel at home anywhere? I do. I feel right at home in this village. I guess it all boils down to whether deep in my heart I'm a city gal or a country gal.  And I happen to be a country gal. And that's how I answered the school inspector. I'm a country gal, and that's why I love it here.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

12 ways to enjoy being poor in Paris

What does one need, to survive? Just read a newspaper article about Mr. Jungner, a Finnish mover-and-shaker who claimed that if one needs to survive with only 10'000 euros per month, it is actually doable, if you have a million euros on you account.; one can fulfill one's basic needs with just that sum. What a relief! Just 10'000 euros per month plus one million in savings, and my basic needs are met! (This reminds me of another mover-and-shaker, a certain monsieur who declared that 'one's life is failed is one doesn't own a Rolex by the age of fifty.) I wonder what Mr. Jungner would say if he had to get by with, say, 450 euros per month and a constant hundred-and-twenty euros of unpaid overdraft. 

I can make an outrageous claim. One can survive with substantially less than the 10'000/1'000'000 euros. And I should know. I have a Masters Degree in Starving Arts from the University of Life, Paris campus. Here's a few hot tips on how to live in Paris with what you gather playing in metro tunnels, or with your tips earned playing five hours in a row in a rowdy bar. And not only live, but to live happily - maybe not for ever after, but for a happy few years. (NB: These tips are meant for the single or coupled, relatively young men/women; I'll address the family way in another blog.)

  1. Make sure you live in an apartment you can afford. (This means, do not attempt even a phone booth-size flat in Montmartre or Ile St. Louis, although they are quaint and picturesque and exude pure frenchness. They are in fact not that french anyway, for they are inhabited by either millionaires, far-eastern souvenir salesmen, american exchange students or naive, clueless Finnish artists such as I.) There are reasonably prized areas even in Paris, and some are actually quite nice. The close-by suburbia works fine, too, and is much more Real French than Montmartre. Make sure you're ok with the idea of living in a toblerone-shaped closet before you move to Paris. Having a separate bedroom just doesn't exist in small-budget rentals. Getting ear plugs is a good idea, too.
  2. If you cannot afford to rent 'by the book', or you don't have parental rent guarantees that are often required, try renting someone's extra bedroom. Roommate renting can work if you're the quiet, well-behaving type, and your roommates are as well. For the partying, adventurous type, try finding a squat. There are still some around Paris.
  3. Make sure your apartment has at least some sort of a kitchen. If not, buy a temporary two-stover and cook with it on the floor. You can't afford to eat out but maybe once a month. But when you can eat out, do so after meticulous research on the restaurant's quality/cost ratio. I admit to having eaten some of the best and worst meals of my life in parisian restaurants.
  4. A starving artist can't afford to eat poorly. When you get a few euros - before anything else, buy food. You can manage this if you check out open-air food markets, especially those nearing the northern or eastern borders of Paris. You can get a kilo of basically any vegetables or fruits for one euro. The quality is not grade A, but hey - neither is your income. Another solution is Leader Price or Ed discount stores, where a fiver goes a long long way. The adventurer's added bonus is to wander to the chinese quarters and find the Tang Frères indoor market. A ten-kilo bag of rice is ridiculously cheap there and vegetarians find their cheap canned tofu. 
  5. A few things to always have around in your kitchen: Onions, potatoes, canned tomatoes, canned beans, dried lentils, garlic, carrots, pasta, rice, salt, bouillon cubes, bottle of cooking oil, ground black pepper. You can buy all of this of less than ten euros in the discount stored mentioned above, and with this, you can cook an amazing variety of good, nutritious meals for a truly long time. Any other spices are good, they bring extra life quality and happiness. I've noticed that when down in the dumps, good spicy food always helps. One finds all the spices one can ever need in the arab quarters. 
  6. Things to avoid on your shopping list: Meat and cheeses. I became the 80% vegetarian I am today mainly because I couldn't afford meat during my Paris years. Cheeses... well, on a payday, I would get a nice inexpensive Camembert from my discount store and just let it ripen outside the fridge for a few days - after all, why live in France if you can't even eat cheese?
  7. I'm not going to say no to alcohol here for I've just told you one can enjoy being poor in France. A lot of this enjoyment comes from wine. I would, however, advice you to stay clear of the cheapest wines. You know, the plastic bottle ones. Or the 'champagne' that costs less than one euro. Have you noticed that's what the rough sleepers drink, under the bridges of Paris? It tastes like yeast and will give you the head ache of your life, plus a miserable case of the runs. But no worries - go to your faithful discount store, and you shall find a decent Bordeaux or Côtes du Rhône for mere two euros! Let the party begin!
  8. There are some that enjoy hard liqueur; there are some that enjoy beer. Both of which you may also find in very inexpensive versions in your discount store. I will not guarantee the quality of your condition on the next day if you choose to take that path.
  9. If you absolutely want to go bar-hopping: Check out the bars in the not-so-chic outskirts of town. They're often cheaper. Dress accordingly, and take a tall, wide-shouldered gentleman friend along.
  10. Take an instrument along. People just might buy you drinks if you play well enough. Ask for a permission to play first, though...
  11. Great things to do with no money: take walks. Solitary walks. Along the river Seine is always a great one, those paved passageways under the bridges are more appealing in daylight. Parc de Luxembourg, Parc Monceau, Parc de Buttes-Chaumont, Parc de Montsouris... I wouldn't know where to start! 
  12. Discover your favorite neighborhoods. Mine were Odéon and rue Mouffetard, Butte des Cailles, Chinatown, a lot of the 14th, 9th and 6th arrondissement, rue Ste Genéviève and the Sorbonne area, a lot or Montparnasse, the Marais and rue des Rosiers, the Père-Lachaise cemetery, and many many others. (Yes, yes, I loved Montmartre as well, although my remarks have so far been scornful on that subject.)
I could go on and on. This is one of my favorite subjects. Not having 10'000 euros per month doesn't mean one can't enjoy one's life. (And what is more, you worry a lot less about shallow things such as appearances, trends and wrinkles!) If you have any fail-proof tips on how to enjoy life while being poor - in France or anywhere else - please let me know. They always come in handy!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

France - the first time.

It had been a long drive. A ferry from Helsinki, Finland, to Lübeck, Germany, then a drive through Germany and north-east France, stopping to sleep around Hamburg. We had been traveling all day - my father drove, my mom read the map, and us, the kids, were dozing on the back seat. It was just before midnight when our mother woke us up saying: 'Hey, kids, this is it. We're here.' Driving into what seemed a bush but was actually a tiny country road covered with oak branches, and finally turning to a yard covered in white gravel.

The night was one of those pitch black summer nights, and the only thing that we could see were the stars above. A milky way stretched up there and gave us a little light so that we could find the front door. We stepped in the smoke-smelling house and since my father wasn't able to find the electric switch, we stumbled up the stairs with a flash light, dragging our camping mattresses with us. Each kid found a floor to sleep on, and before I feel asleep, I listened to the crickets for a while. 'I'm in France for the first time in my life', I thought. 'I'm fourteen, I'm actually here, and I can't see a damn thing.'

Morning. Tiny bright-yellow rays of light pierced the dark green window shutters waking me up. I didn't know where I was, for a while, but hearing my parents shuffling around downstairs, it all came back to me. I opened the shutters, and there it was, attacking from every direction. Paradise. 

A gently rolling Sancerrois countryside with lush green and yellow fields, plum and cherry trees, and old shed and a large pond down the hill. Birdsong! My, what birdsong! And crickets and cows and... what is that smell? Croissants? I looked around me in the room, and wandered through the large old 'longère' farmhouse. Huge rooms, 18th-century tile floors, oak stairs and beams. I ran downstairs to the kitchen where my mother made breakfast. 'Look', she exclaimed, 'fresh croissants!' The fireplace was huge. More tile floors, more beams. And tiny little holes left into the walls. What were those, I wondered. My dad, a history fanatic, explained to me that the house had been built on the year of 'La Révolution', 1789, and the holes were for shooting. There had been battles outside, right there on the field. My head was spinning. I could just picture myself writing a great historical novel, right then and there, here in these rooms! (Little did I know that I would work up the nerve to write that historical novel only 21 years later.)

The Finns that we are, my parents made a sauna in the shed outside. We put candles in the old barn attached to the house and ate our lunch there. We hung a hammock between two plum trees. I would just lay there, listening to the blatant frenchness of my surroundings. I was in love. Desperately, irrevocably in love with this house called 'Les Machereaux', the castles nothing but a few kilometers walk away from our house, the village called Sens-Beaujeu, the region called Berry, the French countryside. It was my first summer n France, and I decided, then and there, that this is where I would spend my life.
Some twenty years and four countries later, here I am.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Paris, love vs. hate, part III

Let's say the airline screwed up and you wound up in a completely strange European city. It looks strangely familiar... that enormous iron phallus, where have you seen it before? That brown stinky river that runs through it... that white cream pastry on a hilltop that vaguely resembles Alan Lee's Tolkien illustrations of Minas Tirith... you can't quite place it. The language that buzzes around you, is it spanish? No, unless it's spanish spoken with chocolate mousse in your mouth. Italian? Almost, but italian does not exude hormonal activity like this language. Is it true? Could this be PARIS? - If you're still at a complete loss and the airline misplaced your GPS, let me give you a couple of well-tested clues just to make sure. If you answer 'oui' to the claims presented below, you are in the City of Lights, the Capital of Love and Weight-obsessed women!

  1. As you enter a boutique, the immediate presumption that you spot on the salesperson's face is that you are there to steal.
  2. This is the only place you've ever been to where you get less service if you smile and apologize.
  3. However, if you snap a nasty retort and shrug, the service around you improves by 100%.
  4. If you dress to your best, it is still not good enough. If you dress badly, you are ignored and pushed around. If you dress revealingly and put on make-up, you will receive lots of attention from elderly toothless men looking for love they can pay for.
  5. If you're a woman and eat with a healthy appetite, you get dirty looks.
  6. There are more pharmacies that grocery stores.
  7. If you happen to speak the native lingo, but speak it slower than at the pace of 100 words per minute, people give up on you, shrug and sigh impatiently: 'Oh, I thought you said you spoke french.'

Yep, you're in Paris. Now that you're here, might as well go to one of those street cafés you've always heard of, and enjoy the slow service. When you get used to the noises around you - the car engines, the honking, the yells, the high heels on pavement, the tyre screeches - you notice that sitting in a café kind of gives you your own private little space in the universe that is Paris. Your private little living room that smells like strong tobacco, pollution and occasional dog turd. You look at the parisians around you, see how their faces are sort of closed, expressionless when they sip their 'express', no sugar. They couldn't care less about the noise and crowds. They shut them out. You wonder how they do that. Going to a french public school from the age of three does that to you.

I took a 'covoiturage' to go to Paris from my heavenly southern France village. Covoiturage, that wonderful invention, is when you reply to an ad on the net where a ride is offered from place A to place B if you participate in the gasoline fare with a small sum of money. The driver was an extremely nice french guy, a parisian, in fact. He had impeccable taste in music and cigarettes (which we smoked the whole 8 hours to Paris), we stopped for a quick coffee (lunch? what lunch? you're not going to eat? he exclaimed at me) and drove towards Paris chattering in a friendly fashion. The closer we got to Paris, the sulkier the gentleman got. He started sighing heavily, talked less and less and frowned more. When we reached 'le périférique' of Paris, the man started swearing from the corner of his mouth. At the first traffic jam, he started waving his fist, swearing heavily, and then honking. When he dropped me off at Montparnasse, he had become a full-blown parisian. 

And yet, I was in Paris, and loved being there. Go figure. There's no rush like the one when you first step off of the metro. The smell alone sticks to your clothes for days. It was an icy, windy day, fit for a Paris fall and winter, and yet little girls were barelegged, boys bareheaded, chic ladies in itsy-bitsy ballerina shoes. I was dressed to go face the Finnish autumn so I felt no cold - but neither did they, it seemed. They had that closed-up look on their faces as they rushed by me, eyeing me up and down with a kind of cynically amused half-a-smile, then returning behind the iron curtain of parisian sulkiness that gets them through the day.

Honestly, don't know why I like the damn city so much.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The French- The Myths

'So, you must drink wine from morning 'till night, then! Those french people, they're drunk all the time!' That's one of those phrases that come my way when I say I live in France. There's a lot of reality-bending stereotype rumors going around about the french. Most of those rumors are such wild fiction, they sound like great names for novels! Examples:

  1. French women don't get fat. Wait, that is a book! Although based on a myth that may sound fascinating to desperate nordic women such as myself, struggling daily with a wobbly derrière or tangible love handles, it is still a myth. I see plenty of fleshy, earthy, well-rounded mamas here in the french countryside. The exception are, of course, parisian women. Those eternal keepers of protein bars and little mineral water bottles. At my age and after, one has to decide whether to go for a lovely face or a lovely body. Parisian women choose the body for some reason I have yet to comprehend.
  2. French men are great lovers. Bet there's a book by that name as well. I will not delve deeply into this fascinating subject, although I'm very tempted. And there are without doubt many great lovers wandering around amongst the noble Gallic tribe. But I will say this: a bulging male ego does not a great lover make. This has myth written all over the girth and length of it.
  3. French women do not shave. I won't even hint at what kind of a book would have that for a name (again, one probably does). Who came up with that? Come on.
  4. French men wear berets. That sounds like a war-time memoir. The oldest men in my village wear berets, and the young french  men probably did in the fifties. However, this is just like saying all Italian guys have a long greasy curved mustache.
  5. The french stink. A french-basher's classic. I have rarely met people so devoted to showering and putting hours into choosing just the right expensive perfume as the french. 
  6. French people are unfriendly. OK, so this is not a name for a bestseller, but it's still an all-time favorite sentence that I've often heard. I mean, who hasn't gotten wind of a chilling chronicle about some horrible incident in a parisian café or a chic boutique? Even I can throw you some good ones, and true accounts, too! But that's Paris. Or St Tropez. Any major tourist attraction, really. Lourdes. Places where the locals are so tired of tourists that they just don't give a damn about being nice - they want them out, fast, whatever the cost. (Forgive me for saying this, but I kind of understand this. Having worked years as a boutique manager at one of Montmartre's busiest spots teeming with liberal amounts of camera-carrying wanderers every day of the year... after being asked 'Where is the Sacre-Coeur' for the thousandth time, I became chilling as well. Now I've said it. I've ruined some poor devil's romantic Parisian vacation.) However - the french countryside is packed with smiling, helpful frenchmen and -women that bend over backwards to help you out. Something you don't often see in, say, Finnish countryside.  
  7. French people are always drunk (and other favorite toast and drinking songs, vol. 1) Nobody drinks as much as the french. Even the working man, on his long lunch break. After having carried stones or laid bricks or paved the roads the whole morning, he orders a heavy lunch and a bottle of red 'vin de pays'. Teachers (have seen this in my Bourges boarding school) drinking at lunch, at dinner. Bankers, postal workers, artists, heaven forbid. They drink wine, wonderful, french, enjoyable, red or white or rosé or sparkling wine. But are they drunk? No. Rarely do I see a french person drunk. I'm talking about the diverse states of drunkenness I'm used to seeing, being a Finn. And if by mistake a frenchman (other than that one village sponge exuding Pastis) does act drunkenly, he is swift to apologize. NB: I do not talk about a worrisome phenomenon that goes by the name of 'teenage binge drinking'. That is a whole other subject, and that for another evening.
Was there some I didn't mention? Send some french-myths my way! I love to correct them and laugh about them. This said, there are some that are true. Will not tell you which ones. Come and see for yourself. It's worth the trip.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

How I Ended Up In France: Boarding school dreams

'How on earth did you end up in France?' If I had a 'Napoléon d'or' for every time I've heard that question, I'd have enough ancient gold coins to be able to move away from France (but I wouldn't). Every expat has a cool story to tell about how they became expats. I love expat stories! For my part, it's not like anyone forced me to move in here, that's for damn sure. We used to spend family vacations in an old Berry county farm house when I was a kid. A pre-pubescent girl hardly needs added romanticism to screw up her hormone-ridden brain, but spending endless warm summer days in a house that was built in the year of 'La Révolution', 1789... I was bitten by a big fat hairy beret-headed France-bug with enough winey venom to have me drugged for my remaining days. So even if my 'lycée' in Finland was a nice, renowned, art-oriented school that would probably have served me better in life, I wanted to live out my romantic fantasies of studying in a french boarding school. I had a friend write an application letter in french and got accepted to Lycée Alain-Fournier boarding school in the medieval city of Bourges. (Imagine the school's administrators surprise when they found out I actually didn't speak any french!)

Oh! A castle, transformed into school housing, with creaking oak-stairway leading to my solitary room in one of the turrets, lit by only torches and candlelight! My days were filled with boarding school dreams fit for 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses'. So when I packed up and moved my bags to my family's old farm house and set out to explore my new school-castle, I truly felt like the hero of my own life.

The truth was somewhat different. Calling the boarding house of Lycée Alain-Fournier a castle would be grossly stretching the truth. It is, however, a shining example of the sixties functional institution architecture; a Stalinesque-grey barrack with doors that may or may not have been orange once upon a painter's cigarette break. By the way, upon my first sight of the disturbingly ugly school, approximately all of the school's two thousand students were outside, forming a circle around an anonymous grey steel barrel moving around it like hoards of pilgrims around the Stone of Kaaba, covering the asphalt yard in ritual Marlboro smoke.

My solitary room in a tower lit by candlelight? A dormitory for eighty girls, sort of hospital-beds separated only by flimsy pliable walls. A brown-gray blanket neatly folded on the bed. I could have another upon request, they assured me, if it got too cold. They wouldn't start heating the dormitories before mid-november.

The art-oriented study program I had opted for? Sorry, no room left! But I could opt for ancient greek or latin instead! Mercifully, a month later I was transferred to the music specialization class, and another month later, I started actually learning french. By the end of the school year, I had become a chain-smoker, had found friends, a lovely french sweetheart to write weepy love songs about, and I could curse the teachers in fluent french. But I could never really get over the fact that my boarding school wasn't the castle I had dreamed about. (I have a strange, inexplicable love for old, moldy castles, the murkier the better.) But I loved my french lycée years dearly. 

To answer the question about how I ended up in France: I just thought I would get to live in a castle. Fifteen years later, I still don't. But I do see one from my bedroom window. That's good enough for me. For now.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

On Finland, now and then.

I've always considered myself an unofficial ambassador to a less-known country called Finland. And proudly so. What's not to love about Finland? People just don't know, so being a Finn expat, I enlighten them.

  1.  It's the Land of Thousand Lakes. 187'888 lakes, in fact.
  2.  It's where Nokia phones and technology is from. Originally. The city of Nokia (Nokia meaning a small rodent, like a mink) is some 180km from Helsinki, the capital, that incidentally is NOT spelled 'Helsinsky' or 'Hellsinky'.
  3.  It's the home of the sauna. Sauna is a Finnish word that means... well... sauna.
  4.  It's the Land of the Midnight Sun. The Nightless Night, a nightmare for those with sleeping problems. And also, the Dayless Day, The Midday Sunlessness that lasts all winter. And that winter, my friends, is long.
  5.  It's the Land of Drinking People. Do not drink alcohol with a Finn, or you become like them - an alcohol person with a finnish problem.

It's also a land with many top rankings when measured worldwide. Literacy, school system, technological achievements, female suffrage (women voted already in 1906, as opposed to, say, Cyprus in 1960, France in 1944, Italy in 1946 or Liechtenstein, anybody? in whooping 1984). Total spirit consumption per capita, too. (See list, point 5.)

It has lots of other top rankings also worth mentioning. The world suicide ratings, for example, for the ages of 25-34, 35-44, 45-54 and 55-64. But hey, we're only the 2nd ranking in suicides of the 15-24 year-olds! (No idea about those over 64 years old.) We're also swinging near to the top ranking in family violence and unemployment. (See list, point 5.)

But we do have some of the world's lowest rankings as well. People that believe Finland to be an undesirable neighbor country are scarce. Our foreign population inflow is the world's 2nd lowest (just look at our winters and you'll know why). Our number of immigrants per capita is a bit less than 3%. 

But when I ask around about what people know Finland for, it isn't known for any of these stats. Nowadays, Finland is very well known for its hankering of right-wing extremist politicians. Its biggest party, the 'True Finns', whose rise to fame was swift and steep. The French know Finland to be a willing buyer of French nuclear power technology. (In the USA, Finland was unheard of. 'Whereabouts in Minnesota is that? Finland? Who's the king of Finland? Isn't that the country with a lesbian communist president? The land where they have no refrigerators?)

The longer I stay away from Finland, the less I know about it. I am a relic of the days of old, for I am no longer able to answer questions about the state Finland is (in) today. So I just keep talking about the Finland I grew up in. The one that was known for its lakes, and saunas, and honest, hardworking, quietly hospitable people. I still go there every summer to enjoy that magnificent nature, my family, those lakes and saunas. The people I no longer recognize. Or maybe, probably, it's me who is changed.

Oh yes, and the stats, the stats? They can be viewed, for example, at BBC for True Finns. Go to Olkiluoto 2 for French Areva nuclear tech. (There is, unfortunately, nothing but my say-so on the comments I have received in the USA. Believe who will...)

Friday, August 19, 2011

Parenting and career advice dilemma

My mother bought me sheet music for Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata when I was 14, and pronounced her wish. She wanted me to choose the career of a classical pianist. My father, however, was quite mad at me for wanting to become a musician to begin with. "Why can't you choose an academic path?" he growled. "Your marks are so good. It would be easy for you, and your income would be guaranteed!" I tried telling him it was too late, my career choice had been made. A singer-songwriter it was, and he shouldn't have anything to whine about for it was him, a musician, who had me record my first single when I was six years old, for God's sakes! "We just want what is good for you", they both grumbled. " But you do what feels right to you. As long as you don't marry a bass player."

And they were right. I should have practiced that piano. I should have pursued my studies. (And I shouldn't have run off to the other end of the world at the age of 19 with a guy I had met a month before.) But why, oh why is it that we truly understand these valuable pieces of advice only when we have kids of our own? Unlike my father, I will probably want my child to become a musician. But if life goes as it always does, she will come to me one day with a big smile on her face and exclaim: "Mom. I've decided! This is my true calling!" "What is, dear?" "To become an engineer!" And I will lecture her for a while, not understanding her decision, but in the end I'll give in. "OK, darling. I just want what is best for you. But by all means, do what feels right to you. As long as you don't run off with a circus performer."

I babble about this now, since my parents are coming over tomorrow to stay with me and my family for a spell. I love them so much, and I intend to tell them they were right about pointing out those career options, however in vain. But they did fail miserably in one aspect of my upbringing.

I've been in a relationship with a bass player for the last ten years and I've married him, too.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Montmartre-heaven or hell? (Hell.)

On our first joint trip to Paris, me and my then-boyfriend-current spouse-future widow and me walked around in awe. I mean, it was Paris, and we were young(er) and desperately in love. We would walk under the bridges (that were, ipso facto, not so romantic after all because it smells strongly of beer urine under there), we kissed in ever street corner and park and graveyard and dreamed of moving there. The whole of Paris made us dream, and no place as much as Montmartre. 

The little alleys! The quaint cafés! The artistic bars! The breathtaking view from the stairs of Sacre-Coeur! We agreed- this is where we will move when we move to Paris. No matter what the cost. Even if we'll have to play in the metro to survive! It would be worth it, just to spend every day aimlessly wandering those streets.

Our first apartment in Montmartre turned out to be somewhat disheartening (see blog n:2 'How I became a starving artist'.) The second one was in the same apartment building, on rue Chappe, a street familiar from hundreds of Montmartre postcards. It was going to be more expensive, sighed the owner. But hey, no worries! It was going to be much, much bigger, again with state-of-the-art kitchen and great view. Great neighbors, too, he exclaimed. We decided to take the apartment nearing 800e per month. What we got was 23m2 along with a view on the 4m2 inner courtyard where garbage is collected, and facing directly our neighbor's living room, bed room and shower. He could see inside ours, too; well enough to tell us what a beautiful cat we had sleeping in our bed. He was the nice neighbor the owner had told us about.

The upstairs neighbor was, however, different. A young, hip aristocrat with the penthouse flat, a serious cocaine habit and a taste for parties, girls, techno music and expensive, large loudspeakers. No day job that I knew of, either, so the parties would go on until 5 A.M. almost every night. On the nights the youngster didn't party, he'd entertain his numerous lady-friends. Same routine with every single one of the poor girls. 

  1. Erykah Badu's 'In love with you' on full blast.
  2. Popping of champagne, chin chin.
  3. 'Je t'aime, tu sais.'
  4. Vertical rumba all night long with 'In love with you' on repeat.

One night, one of these girls surprised the lover-boy with another girl. He wouldn't open the door, and so there she was, banging away in the hallway, at 3 A.M. When he wouldn't open, she started banging on ours, asking if she could sleep at our place. She had come with her suitcase, and wanted to wait until morning to be able to let him know how much she loved him. We let the poor girl in. The next morning, she left without saying thanks. Like attracts like. Well, this aristo-brat-techno-gigolo wasn't all that bad. When he heard we were off to surf down where his family's castle has been for the last 400 years, he asked us to stop by. (When we did, he kindly permitted us to put our tent in his garden.)

Many things happened in our Montmartre apartment, sleeping not being one of them. But my man did ask me to marry him there, while brushing his teeth. 'So, you wanna marry me?' I was half asleep, we had just come home from a jam session. 'Mhmh', I replied. The next morning we bought cheap rings on rue St André des Arts, and were engaged.

We fell totally in love with the 7ème arrondissement the day we bought our rings. 'Hey, don't you think we should live here?' we gasped together. There was one downside - the rent cost. We figured it couldn't be worse than in Montmartre. And we were right. Two months later, we moved to rue de Lille, next to the Musée d'Orsay.