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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'.