Fifteen years ago, I was in my late twenties and munching my way around Paris.
I really do mean it quite literally. I had a habit of snacking while walking. I’d even go as far as to claim that snack-walking was my hobby. Conveniently burning away the calories while exploring the endless charms each arrondissement had to offer, that unique ambiance you can’t really put your finger on, but when the sun lights a building in a particular way and the air is crisp and warm at the same time. That family walking into the flower shop right there, the boulanger who always says Bonjour when I pass, the old lady who is pulling her shutters closed, leaves falling as I walk past the school with polite French kids who only skip around loudly when they are told they may. Entering the postcard shop I always enter and buying the ones I didn’t buy last time.
I didn’t mean to burn calories, I just couldn’t stop walking. How could I commute to work with the métro in this lovely city, I would miss all the fun! And the snacking, I didn’t mean that either. Paninis, crêpes, Mon Chéri chocolates, pain au chocolates or those lovely ones with raisins, ooh – I always had some treat or other traveling towards my mouth.
Early on, I was quite aware that this was not a particularly French thing to do, as I kept getting calls of “Bon ap’!!!” accompanied by snickering wherever I went, and I could feel all eyes on me. But I embraced my non-Frenchness, maybe they thought I was American (sorry, guys!), who cares. It even came to my attention that no French people, ever in the history of time, were to be seen with takeaway coffee on the streets. They all had time to sit down and enjoy it properly. Walking around carrying a hot beverage was a disgrace, as far as I could tell.
On the other hand, my French colleagues were already ordering lunch delivered to the office back then, and that didn’t start happening in Helsinki until the pandemic hit. We even had Christmas lunch delivered one year. The company was treating us to a special festive meal and we were given a menu of three options to choose from. I don’t remember what I chose but I remember all my colleagues chose a dish with some kind of delicate bird – my French readers will certainly know what it was. To me, it had sounded too exotic, but when I saw the dishes arrive, it was clear my dish wasn’t as tasty as theirs. They’d automatically known the hidden correct answer to the multiple choice questionnaire of what to order in France for Christmas at work. Another fail for me in the eating department! I told myself, never mind, I’m not French anyway!
Je t’invite, I invite you – I like the word play of how a French person tells you they will pay for your share. In Finland, even if you are invited to an event or a dinner at a restaurant, it is usually assumed everyone will pay for their own share, so an invite does not, in my mind, automatically mean I am being offered something. There were other words too that I rolled around in my mouth (between snacks), false friends like baskets, which meant sneakers, and people, which meant celebrities.
My almost-French-looking skinny Finnish friend, who had lived in Paris longer than me, liked shopping in the tiny Finnish food market which shipped in fresh salmon and the daily newspaper, and sold Finnish staples like rye bread and salty licorice. I didn’t miss Finnish food because I was in France to experience France. My dear friend never snacked on the street like me.
But I didn’t always snack alone. A Hungarian girl from work would walk with me in the tiny green parks nearby, after work, and we’d drink sweet Tunisian mint tea in tiny coffee shops and lick our fingers after sticky Chinese food. At her place, we’d watch her cat dive into paper bags again and again, as if it was the funnest thing in the world. I’d leave with a runny nose, since I was allergic to cats.
My other friends, mostly from work or met through mutual acquaintances – Finnish, French, Czech, German – took me to nice places for drinks and to clubs to hear live music and dance. We went running and had picnics by the Seine, there were apéros and museum visits, and I had a favourite bookstore. It always felt like a very safe place and I hadn’t a worry in the world. Before Paris, there’d been Montpellier, and a lot of familiar faces from those days were still hanging out in France too, some of them really settling in, getting married, and flaunting Facebook photos of sunbathing on a yacht in the Côte d’Azur. I’ve lost touch with them all, since I stopped using Facebook.
But for a moment, Paris was mine and life was treating me deliciously.
What were you doing 15 years ago?