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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Liberté, égalité, maternité - or Baby Bleus

After announcing the Big News, the first words that I heard from my immediate family were: "My God, you're not thinking of giving birth there?" I could just hear their organized Nordic minds going a hundred miles per hour. "It's just not hygienic." "Are you sure they have the newest equipment?" "Are their doctors qualified?" "Do they have ultra-sound machines?" All great concerns. I couldn't answer to any of them, because it was going to be my first time in attempting to reproduce on French soil.
At the time, we lived in the city of Ivry-sur Seine that starts where south-western Paris ends. Getting out of my house and in two minutes, I was in Parisian China-town, the 13th arrondissement. And as much as I had feared the great big Parisian hospitals, I caught a lucky break - my birthing clinic was a small maternity ward, just 50 meters from our home. As close as this was to Paris, it was the suburbs, and I was their first ever Nordic patient. From my first visit on, the nurses and mid-wives and doctors had a bunch of questions to ask me on my native Finland. "Do they have the newest equipment, over there?" "Are their doctors qualified?" "Do they have ultra-sound machines?" All great concerns.
As I was soon to find out, they sure were a qualified bunch. I needn't worry about anything. Everything was taken care of. Me and my fetus were in good hands. Of course, being the Viking matron that I am, I got some remarks about my sizable frame, and their greatest concern was my possible weight gain. Never has a human being been weighted more often. A warning finger was wagged - do not succumb to gourmandise or you will be huge and a danger to your baby! How had Nordic women managed to give birth up until now without this precious advice! Little did they know that after my initial weight-gain burst during the first trimester, I actually hardly gained any weight at all. Problem solved.
A major concern of my fellow Finns had been - could I afford a pregnancy in France? How expensive would it be? But, no problem. Being a Finn, thus an European citizen, and having worked in France for more than three years, the French social security took the whole of my pregnancy expenses in charge. Just as they do in Finland. As my pregnancy advanced, I also got a hefty check in the mail. "Birthing bonus", they called it, and every French mom is entitled to one. For me, I had mostly feared the notoriously over-worked and mean Parisian medical staff. Again, no problem. Apart from one cranky ultra-sound doctor, I received good humor and smiles all the way. I was the cranky one, with a hormone cocktail that could have been described as explosive as a Molotov's cocktail. But hey, no problem! My clinic was staffed with mid-wives specializing in homeopathic remedies, herbal medicine and acupuncture, all taken in charge by social security. After a few relaxing and calming acupuncture sessions, my long-suffering husband hardly recognized me.
I did have some long discussions on the subject of having kept my maiden name in marriage. Also, my ex-husband's name lurked somewhere there in my files, and that raised some eyebrows as well. I noticed that the French were more traditional on the subject of the holy matrimony, and all that family name stuff. I had to go through fire and brimstone of paperwork and lengthy explanations to  make them understand that although I had my maiden name, I was married, and my baby would get my husband's family name after all. (Still, the day I gave birth, my daughter carried a label with my family name on it.)
When the happy day of birth arrived, it was actually night. We had since moved from our Ivry-sur-Seine home (with no running water and a mold problem) to a more family-friendly apartment in a mile radius. As Parisians, we didn't have a car, and when my waters broke, we had to take the taxi. The only issue was, taxis don't take birthing ladies in, for the fear of getting their car interior ruined and getting stuck in traffic and having to act as midwifes. So I put a big over-coat on and pretended I was just a big-boned gal, asking the driver to drop us off a few blocks from the clinic.
And off I went to this adventure where the outcome is uncertain. There was a Senegal mommy in the bed next to me, talking animatedly to a cell phone between contractions, and young French girl whimpering in agony while her mother-in-law shouted to the night-shift doctors. But I was, once again, in good hands. It took way longer that it should, so in the end my daughter came out surgically. But now, I have hardly a scar to show for it. And it turns out that my little girl was the first completely white-haired baby born in the Clinic Jean Rostand, ever.
Now as I'm preparing to take my second maternity leave, I'm no longer in Paris but in southern France. I am to give birth in a country hospital, where every room is a single one, and the sunflower fields can be seen from the labor room. My Finn family are happy with my decision to give birth in France. "Oh, they did such a wonderful job the first time!" My baby's happily kicking away in her bubble universe. All is fine in the animal kingdom.
However, I have yet to convince the medical staff to write my maiden name down in my medical files. It's got to be my husband's name. They shake their heads and make up all kinds of lame excuses: "You know, what if there was a mix-up? What if yours was confused with another baby with the same name?"
Honestly. How many babies can there be, in this southern French country hospital, with the same unpronounceable Finnish name?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Let's talk weather.

When I mention southern France, what comes to your mind? - I know what comes to mine, still, after all these years.

  1. Turquoise seawater
  2. Rocky or sandy beaches with olive trees gently swaying in a light breeze
  3. Light, sand-stone villas surrounded by lemon and olive groves
  4. Endless, fragrant lavender fields
  5. Endless, fragrant vineyards
  6. Soft, pink light
  7. Sun, not too hot but a pleasant sun that gives you an effortless biscuit tan
  8. A sleepy town square, closed shutters and ice-cold Pastis
  9. A warm, welcome mist of seasonal rain only a few days a year
  10. Leathery, bronzed farmers with fresh produce and a rotund but charming local accent
  11. ... and above all - balmy, embracing warmth that makes you forget about dreary north-European winters featuring sleet, snow and slippery roads.
Even now, knowing what I know, this is what comes to mind when I hear the words 'southern France'. This list comes to mind, to vanish immediately, replaced with other phenomena I've become accustomed to, recently. 

For example - those long, slim, sausage-like pillows of gaudy prints or dirty colors. Ever seen one of those? I used to wonder what they were used for. First thing that popped into my mind, having seen how the French often sleep on long, thick, sausage-like pillows was that these slim versions were just kiddy-versions of these truly uncomfortable bed accessories. But, to my surprise, I discovered these pillows are ingeniously used to block the mouse-size windy gaps under every front door when winter moves in on southern France. Oh yes. There is winter in southern France, and I've never been as cold in my native Finland as I've been here. Let me tell you how that is possible.

A really touching real-life story took place this very winter. We had just moved into a 13th-century-monastery-school of a house in the middle of a southern-French medieval village. Autumn had been fabulous; soft, sunny days gone by just picking figs and grapes straight off of branches, picnics and long walks. I hadn't bought a single woolen sweater, for what use could that have. Then came january, and with it the harshest winter weather 'in living memory', or so I was told by locals. A months worth of sub-zero temperatures, snow, permafrost and a hell of a north wind, bringing me its best wishes from Finland (that, incidentally, suffered under temperatures of -40° at the time). I had heard locals brag how 'nothing penetrates our meter-thick stone walls', but what else are stone walls but a safe haven for cellar-temperatures? These meter-thick walls guaranteed a permanent damp and moldy ten degrees within the house, no matter what. 

Don't we have heating? Well, yes we do. But not the kind of heating that was built for -15°c, let alone a month of frost. Our electricity snapped off every time we'd fire up all our radiators simultaneously, there simply wasn't enough power to keep them going. And the fireplace? Oh, yes, we have a wonderful, pre-Revolution stone fireplace! The problem was, we had just moved in, it hadn't been used for years, and was badly in need of a chimney sweep. And since this was the coldest winter in living memory, chimney men were having the busiest time of their lives. We were told one could stop by, say, in a month.

So, what did we do during that month? We managed to keep our bedrooms close to around +16°c and slept with extra blankets, no big deal. Our main issue was downstairs. That huge salon I had fallen in love with had to remain closed, its massive windows let the wind in through invisible gaps - I knew that could be arranged, I'd have to purchase those long slim pillows sooner or later. But we had to use our kitchen, didn't we. And the kitchen was the coldest place in the house. It was too low of a temperature to mature a good Roquefort cheese in our kitchen, for Roquefort requires a steady ten degrees to work its magic. Our kitchen, on the other hand, had the steady temperature of +4°c. To cook, I'd wear my dad's old wool sweater on top of another sweater, or on a lazier morning I'd just throw on my winter coat. 

My feet were getting the torture of a lifetime, though. A Finn like me knows sub-zero temperatures - you have to keep your feet warm at all cost. So I'd put on my thickest, grayest norwegian fisherman's wool socks and squeeze them into my felt slippers. By then, they were just too tightly packed and I couldn't feel my feet. So I had to choose, slippers or wool socks. I tried it both ways - my feet remained numb. I'd end up wearing leather boots in the house, leather boots were the thickest footwear I'd ever needed during my winters in southern France. In the end, I had to take those off and rub my feet because the cold was unbearable. As you may guess, this did not end well. As weeks rolled by and my feet started itching and swelling, I went to see the doctor, thinking that along with the cold I was punished with the worst case of toe fungus imaginable. He agreed with me and ordered some cream, what else was there to do. Except that the cream made my feet colder than ever, and when they swelled up some more and started turning a purplish shade of violet, I went to see the good man again. This time he got the point. My feet were frozen, he explained. Strangely enough, I believed the man. Although I had never frozen my feet during my winters in the northernmost corner of Europe, I had actually come to southern France to experience freezing my toes.

By mid-february, the temperatures started turning tolerable again. And, miraculously, the chimney man was finally free to fix our fireplace! By now, we had bought a wood stove that did the trick fast enough, we could use our medieval salon again. I slowly abandoned my winter coat. My feet, although blackened and shriveled, had regained feeling. Flowers and swallows returned to southern France. Life was beautiful again. 

Then, this week, a sudden drop to +6°c and a wicked north wind they call Mistral. Welcome to southern France.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Friends will be French

Things you should know about me, Part II: I'm a hermit. My idea of a good friend is a book that has more than a thousand pages. However, living abroad, one does feel the occasional need for human contact; we're only human after all. I thought life in France would be same as living everywhere - 'If you build it, they will come'. Friends, that is. How wrong I was.

A lot has been written about making friends with the French. Because they're ... special friends. The kind you spent a long time getting. My crusade to France started out with living in Paris with no friends at all, and as a few more years rolled by, I still had none. Eventually, we talked this over with my then-boyfriend-now-spouse. Maybe something was wrong with us? Maybe we had turned into disreputable characters while living in Paris. Maybe our stocky Finnish built was a social turn-off.

In the mean time, we did have friends of other nationalities. Swedish, a few fellow Finns. Brazilian. Those guys from Mali and Senegal, the occasional American. As you spend some time in Paris, you do notice it's easier to get acquainted with other foreigners. You commiserate about Paris, and a friendship takes off easily enough. It's like those old guys who met at wartime and became best friends. There's something about digging trenches and avoiding bullets - or parisian landlords and dog turds - that sticks humans together like crazy-glue.

On our third year in Paris, we got acquainted with a few French, though. There was this guy who called himself Funk-Gary (the name has been subtly changed) that we saw playing in every funk jam session to be found in Paris. He played the same song over and over again and was very fond of fancy drinks. As we seemed to run into him in every music bar we went to, my boyfriend eventually gave this ubiquitous Funk-Gary character his number. And he did call the following night, asking my boyfriend out to see some band or another. 'Great', my sweetheart said, 'you know, we're really starting to befriend these French!'

He came back later that night, and I heard him standing there in the dark, sighing depressingly. 'So, how did your evening go?', I asked, sleepily. 'Fine', he said. 'We went to see a band, then Funk-Gary invited me over for some drinks and declared his undying love for me.'

Another fellow Frenchman, called Bert, was very energetic. He had just give up alcohol and drugs and said he needed some fresh friends that were not a part of his old bar gang. Glad to finally know an  actual Frenchman, we hang around with him a few months over summer, at the end of which he even invited himself over to Finland with us. This was a big mistake, since Finland can easily have a badly alcoholic influence over any given human. He started drinking and became... different. Once drunk, he started talking about his past in various prisons of France, and simultaneously offered to produce my next album. Swiftly back in Paris, we did a little background checking on our new French friend (thank goodness for Internet) and found out his full name, while a rare-sounding one, did come up when googled. It's just that, well, according to Google, he had been dead a long time. Murdered some fifteen years ago. We didn't keep in touch.

And then there was of course our smooth-talking upstairs neighbor with big loudspeakers and a cocaine habit who kindly enough invited us over to his family's estate in the Vendée on our surfing trip, and once there, he pointed at his back yard and drawled: 'You can put your tent over there.' Finally, after six years in Paris, we gave up on it and moved to the country side. By this time, we were already OK with the idea that as foreigners, we may never have one single French friend.

However, this story has a happy ending. After a measly two years in our village, we have lots of good friends. To define friends, we meet socially on a weekly basis, sometimes make supper together, borrow each-others' CD's, babysit each-others' kids, party once in a blue moon. And believe it or not, these people are all French. As unbelievable as it may sound, we now have a 100% French social life. 

If this story has a lesson to offer, that is once more the same old song: Paris is not France. If you've given up hope to befriend a single Frenchman/woman, here's my tip. In fact, if there's one tip in general I have to offer about France, it would be this. Move to the countryside. Life is better there, and your friends will be French.