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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.