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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. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On Middle-aging.

I recently read somewhere that you know you're middle-aged when Vienna starts appealing to you as a hot vacation spot. I'd love to go to Vienna! Other signs of middle-aging:

  1. I choose sleeping over partying anytime.
  2. I used to be way younger than all the musicians I played with. Now it's vice versa.
  3. I often start a phrase with: 'These kids nowadays...'
  4. I have a VHS-recording of an old children's TV show. My dad asks me: 'How old is this show, anyway?' 'Oh, fairly recent', I reply. He shakes his head. 'No, no. Look at that little girl having her birthday. See the date? She's born the same year as the current Miss France.'
  5. Having VHS cassettes to begin with. I've had a pre-schooler ask me: 'What is that thing?'
  6. Enjoying talking about recipes, gardening and politics; no longer that much about bands, parties and booze.
  7. A friend had overheard two teenage girls commenting over a man, saying: 'A grandpa, about 40 years old'. How is that supposed to make me feel, not being that far from the Big Four-Oh myself?

Actually, I feel pretty good. Even though I live in the weight-loss promised land, France. (By the way, about 'French women don't get fat'? That's a big fat lie. Parisian women don't get fat.) You know what they say about the thirties. 'You raise your family, you make a little money, you buy your first house.' (Personally, I agree about that family-raising part, having no experience on the two other points.)For me, it's basically about accepting myself the way I am. OK, some detours in this life have been less than pleasant, but I'm glad I walked those paths anyhow. These wrinkles tell their tale, and I'm kind of proud of them, in a weird way. With these years giving me extra firepower, I'm no longer the wimp that I once was. You insult me? I'll fire right back. Those kids down the street bug my child? I'll give them the authority hell they deserve. So I can no longer call myself a 'promising young singer-songwriter'? That's OK. I'm OK with 'promising middle-aged singer-songwriter.'

These kids, nowadays. It's not even about not getting old anymore - it's about attempting to no longer die. I read in a Finnish newspaper that in 20 years, science will have come up with the answers to postpone old age almost indefinitely. You could live, like, seven hundred years. Tell you what. That's going to be some long, long middle-age years. Better start liking it now. I know I do.

You out there, you who want to live 700 years - how would you spend your life? Give me some hints. Who knows, one day I might need them.

PS. The spell checker on Blogger didn't recognize the word 'fat'. What does that say about the age we live in...?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

On ears, on earth, on art, on heart.: Paris -or 'How I became a starving artist'.

On ears, on earth, on art, on heart.: Paris -or 'How I became a starving artist'.: "Don't get me wrong. I love Paris. Don't we all? Paris is the Capital of Love, after all; the citadel where light is pink and La vie is en R..."

Paris -or 'How I became a starving artist'.

Don't get me wrong. I love Paris. Don't we all? Paris is the Capital of Love, after all; the citadel where light is pink and La vie is en Rose. Just choose a favorite bridge and watch the sun setting over Paris, dyeing Notre Dame red. Ah, the bliss. But let me tell you how Paris looks when you're a musician, and new to the city. True story.

We packed up our instruments, my spouse and me, and moved in an 8m2 apartment in Montmartre for 560e/month. 'A large, state-of-the-art kitchen', promised the ad, 'View on the Sacre-Coeur'. Well, the damn apartment was a kitchen, complete with a stow-away table and pull-down bed. You could see  twenty inches of Sacre-Coeur, if you leaned out the 'French balcony' dangerously enough and looked up and to the left. But hey, it was Paris, and a lonesome accordionist played a heartfelt rendition of 'April in Paris' under the window.

Two months later, we grew tired of the accordionist's every night concert under our window, and of the rats chewing away on our baguette, and of not having room enough to turn around to go out the door. Let alone the rent. We earned our living by playing in the metro, and 560e/month was hard to come by. We decided to get random jobs to sustain us while getting a bigger place and a more substantial rent, and started inquiring after jobs as a bar musician.

The first bar we ever played in offered us a whooping 15e/night, and whatever we could earn by passing our hat around. Slowly, we moved on to bigger, juicier deals, 30e/night plus two beers. And after four years of painful networking, we found a 'steady' job as piano bar musicians for the grandiose 50e/night, from 22:30 to 04:30, plus whatever tips we could collect in our hat. (That job ended when the bar owner found out he could hire starving artists for only 40e/night.)

Whatever you may think, those good ol' days were the golden days of glory. For nowadays I hear you actually have to pay up to be able to play in Paris. 'Unless you bring fifty people, then we reimburse you.' I learned all that I wanted to learn about being a musician in Paris, then moved away. Tell you what, though. I had lots of laughs. And wouldn't go back for any price. I like to be appreciated for the work that I do. Being a musician is work. Years of education and apprenticeship, professionalism and acquired skill. I mean, does anyone tell a banker 'Oh! I thought this was your hobby! I couldn't imagine you'd want to be payed!'?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

On ears, on earth, on art, on heart.: Why I live in France - part 1.

On ears, on earth, on art, on heart.: Why I live in France - part 1.: "Things you must know about me. I'm finnish. You know, Finland. The country that got named either after a bog (Fen-land), of for being at t..."

Why I live in France - part 1.

Things you must know about me.

  1. I'm finnish. You know, Finland. The country that got named either after a bog (Fen-land), of for being at the end of the world (Fin-land). 
  2. As a child, I dreamed about living in France. For me, a history and art geek, it was supposed to be the ultimate rush. As it turns out, I was right.
  3. I've tried other countries. First Finland (duh), then France, then the USA, Malaysia, the Canary Islands. Always kept coming back to France.
  4. My thing about France is inexplicable. I've suffered six years of Paris, after all, and still stayed. 
  5. No, I will not start on french-bashing. These people may look at me weirdly and snigger at my accent, my rowdy habits and my Viking matron look, but they let me stay. 
  6. I love food. I'm in awe of french food. The wines don't exactly bother me, either.
To be sure, all things are difficult at the beginning. At first, I couldn't figure out what they were repeatedly telling me. Then I realized that mystery phrase was 'Do you speak french?' Took me a half-a-year of tight-lipped boarding school to survive in french, and has been a piece of cake ever since. When you get their lingo, it's all downhill thereafter. That didn't sound right. It's uphill ever-after, and although one gets out of breath, it's worth every wheeze. For me, if one doesn't count my years in a Berry county boarding school which is entirely another chapter, it all started in Paris. But that is another chapter as well, and this was supposed to be part 1. 

When I take a walk around my little medieval village, I only see cats. People are moving out of these charming little towns. My wish is to get them to move back. Artists, especially. There is an old Renaissance hotel for sale in my village, ready to be transformed into a cultural center. Any takers? I'd be more than willing to run it for you. Artists need peace to create culture, the abandoned french countryside needs culture and inhabitants. Any ideas on how to get this unbalance fixed?