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Blogger’s note: I wrote this post a few days ago, and the air has cleared since then. However, as I still find the topic interesting, I’m going to post it anyway.

The half of the village I live in is nestled in between two small hills.

And while this allows you to descend into lovely fall foliage as you drive to our house, it also means that, for all purposes, we are nestled in a valley. Which isn’t a big deal. Except…

People in France love their chimneys. They’re so popular here that bags of firewood are not only custom-ordered, but also sold in large bags in supermarkets and gas stations.

People here also burn leaves. I’m not sure why. My village is about a 3-minute walk from a huge national forest. They could easily leave a pile of leaves there to decompose, if, for some reason, they felt they couldn’t just let the leaves stay in their yards. But no, they insist on burning them.

This, combined with the nightly fireplace-burning, means that, starting in the early morning hours, my house is stuck in a thick blanket of smog. Chimney smog. Just call me Pipp. Or Oliver. Or some other Dickens character.

It’s not too bad, generally, unless the wind isn’t blowing. Then, I start to have an asthma attack upon waking up. And when I leave my street in the early morning hours, I can barely see through the thick smog. It’s sort of like being in Delhi, except that I don’t get the good food to go along with it .

And, of course, except that the air clears mid-morning.

It’s odd, though. I’ve had this conversation with some other foreigners here in France, and we’re all surprised at the copious amount of fireplace- burning that goes on. From what some French people have told me, they look at it like they are saving on gas or electricity for heating, hence, saving the Earth. I can see this point, to a certain extent, and I applaud them caring about the atmosphere. But,  isn’t polluting with fireplace smoke just as bad? Or am I missing something here? And that’s not meant as a rhetorical question, I’m actually curious what other people think about this. Let me know.

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Finally, after several weeks of finding no empty seats for the GRE testing until January, I was able to nab a seat for a testing day on Nov. 24.

As many of you know, I’ve been studying for this beast (granted, on-again, off-again) for months and months. But, now it’s finally time to take it. My sample verbal ability scores have been really good, but I’m still trying to memorize the long list of words in my GRE Study book.

As I came to the list of “e” words (I started at the end of the alphabet. Don’t ask why) I realized just how much my study of French has helped me.

For example:

*entree: entrance, a way in. (French: enter)

*epaulet: ornament worn on the shoulder (of a uniform, etc). (French: epaule, shoulder. Could figure this one out)

*essay: to make an attempt at, test. (French: Essayer, to try)

*facile: easily accomplished (French: Easy)

*febrile: feverish (French: Fébrile: Feverish)

And this was only on one page! At least I feel like my months spent in failure, trying to learn French, maybe weren’t so useless after all…

puissance4

Connect 4 - in French

As D. and I mentally prepare to leave France in just a few weeks, I’m keeping my eyes open for cool gifts to bring back home for the holidays.

Naturally, I think mostly of food gifts — honey from our village, vinaigrettes, flavored mustards, glazed chestnuts, spice for “spiced bread,” poppy syrup, etc.

But today I opened up a store advertisement someone had placed in our mailbox, and I noticed it was the Christmas gift edition. And, guess what? The French have the same children’s games we have in America — only in French!

Shocking, I know.

docteurmaboul

Operation, in France

But I keep thinking about how cool it would have been, when I was a little girl, to have received a board game I knew how to play – but in French.  For example? “Docteur Maboul,” which we, in the US, know as “Operation.”  You just know that if you had owned the French version of this game when you were in elementary school, you would have been the most popular playdate friend around.

Qui-est-ce

Guess Who?

I’ve also seen Connect 4 under the name “Puissance 4,” and, my personal favorite, “Que est-ce?” — or Guess who? You remember — the one where you play the part of a Maricopa County detective, using racial-profiling to nab suspects?   “Does he have dark skin? “Does his look Hispanic?” “Does he have a funny-sounding name?” “Is he driving a minivan?” (Just kidding, “Guess Who” fans. I know, I know, it’s an innocent game ).

 I think it would be really fun to play “Guess Who?” in French.  Especially because, from what I can tell, they’ve “Frenched” the game up a bit, changing the characters names to things like “Sophie” and “Phillipe” and “Bernard.” Unless these were the original English names, too, I’m not sure.  On a positive note, at least  the woman who wears a beret in her photo doesn’t look as ridiculous when you play the game in France.

The advertisement also shows the game Pictionary: Un mot en un coup de crayon. I think I’d really like to buy this game, then suggest playing Pictionary with my US friends. Without telling them, I’ll just bust the French version out and watch their confusion grow as they pick cards and realize they can’t read them. Same thing with the game “Taboo.”

Anyhow, I doubt I will actually end up buying any of these games. They’re too bulky and heavy to bring back on an airplane and, plus, I don’t really know any 8-year-olds who would enjoy them. Which is a shame. Because I would really love to be the “cool” aunt or cousin who brings back foreign board games. Oh well. Maybe someday.

jurri

Ravintola Juuri

I’ll admit it — it surprised me.

I didn’t expect the Finns to be so trendy when it came to food. If you had asked me, last month, what “Finnish food,” was, I would have been hard-pressed to come up with even one particular dish.

But the Finns are understated. Like a cashmere sweater set, or solitaire diamond. Yes, that’s you, Finland.

It turns out that, not only does Finland have some really creative, fun restaurants, it also promotes a lot of local, sustainable foods.

Here’s the thing: It’s easy to be Loco McLocalvore when you live somewhere like Texas or San Diego. Just about everything grows year-round. You want a challenge? Try eating “locally” somewhere like Green Bay, Wisc., when you must wait long stretches, from October to April, let’s say, without finding any vegetable recognizable to anyone other than your grandpa and grandma (“Turnips? I’ll give ya turnips! When I was your age, we not only ate the things, we made shoes outta their skins! And we stuck our hands in hot potatas keep ’em warm!”)

Yet this is where the Finns shine.

Cabbage. Crawfish. Parsnips. Cauliflower. Reindeer.  They figure out how to use it all, and make it taste — and look — mighty good in the process.

We ate our favorite dinner at Ravintola Juuri (I can’t figure out what “Juuri” means in Finnish. The dictionary I looked at said it can mean either “root” or “right now” or “freshly” — all of which would make sense) in Helsinki. We found it from an old New York Times article, so I was a bit worried. Usually, I find their suggestions pretentious, and unimpressive. Maybe I’m not hip enough.
juuri.cabbage

Crispy cabbage roll with crawfish, dill and cheese

Anyhow, Juuri serves “Sapas,” which are like little Finnish tapas. Instead of ordering a big meal, D. and I just ordered about every sapa on the menu. It’s hard to figure out what are favorites were — turnip bread with parsnip butter, ligonberry-marinated salmon on maltbread, crayfish -and -cheese filled cabbage leaves with melted dill butter, whitefish pastry with shredded white radish salad, and smoked reindeer heart, however, made it to the top of our lists.

I want to write to Bon Appetit and ask them to find  the recipe for that turnip bread. So, it didn’t really remind me of a “bread,” more like a thick custard or something. Whatever it was, it was buttery and earthy and delicious. I need to have it again!

I also ordered “Beetroot and nut stew and small mushrooms,” which, I admit, didn’t sound that appealing to me. I mean, I love beets as much as the next girl, but I didn’t expect much. What arrived on my plate, however, was a little cake of shredded beet and walnut (I think) that was so amazingly tasty I couldn’t believe I was eating a beet. I have to figure out how to make this.

Juuri gave me some great ideas for experimenting with veggies that are underused, and underappreciated, in the U.S. – parsnips, turnips, cabbage, beets, etc.

The restaurant also had a nice wine list, and some really creative cocktails, like one with “seabuckthorn berries” and brandy.

I think we have a lot to learn from the Finns.

On Suomenlinna

On Suomenlinna

Sure, we had slightly more than 36 hours to enjoy Helsinki. But considering the amount of time we wasted trying to locate our luggage, shopping at convenience stores to replenish things we needed from our lost luggage, etc., we didn’t have a lot of time.

So I’ve highlighted the major sites we made sure to enjoy during our long weekend in Finland.

1. Suomenlinna: This sea fortress, built on six islands just a short boatride from a Helsinki harbor, was built in the mid-1700s and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was run by the Swedes, then the Russians, and finally, of course, the Finns themselves, after they gained their independence.

The huge fortress

The huge fortress

The island also offers great views into the Baltic!

The island also offers great views into the Baltic!

 

2. Uspenski Cathedral: Built in the 1800s, this Eastern Orthodox Church towers over the central part of Helsinki. If you go between the hours of noon and 3 p.m., you can take a peek inside, too, and  see the ornate decorations.

Uspenski Cathedral, from the street level

Uspenski Cathedral, from the street level

 

Inside of the cathedral...

Inside of the cathedral...

3. Senate Square and the Lutheran Cathedral: The main “plaza” of Helsinki, this square is home to the Parliament building, a large university building AND  the Helsinki Cathedral,originally built as a tribute to Nicholas I, the Tsar of Russia, and until the independence of Finland in 1917, called St. Nicholas’ Church.  It’s also a block away from the Helsinki City Museum, which is free for visitors.

I’d suggest going to the tourist office, where you can purchase a guide of 7 self-guided walking tours for 2 euros. If you do, you can quickly learn about all the buildings surrounding Senate Square, as well as get ideas for some other interesting walks.

Senate Square

Senate Square

 

Helsinki Cathedral

Helsinki Cathedral

5. Kauppatori Square: This market square is right next to the sea, and there’s pretty old (indoor) public market building right there. Inside, you can grab a cheap falafel or a reindeer kebab sandwich, buy souvenirs (cloudberry jam, reindeer jerky, smoked trout) and even take a look at some fish.
We couldn’t get over how much salmon there is there, all marinated in different ways (some with ligonberries, rosemary, pepper, etc.). We  purchased two rye bread open-faced sandwiches pictured below. One had trout roe, the other had shrimp. They were about 2.50 euros each.
The open-air market adjacent to the building is a typical farmer’s market, and it operates from morning to early afternoon. The indoor market is open until 6 p.m. on weekdays, 4 p.m. on Saturdays.
A salmon stand at the public market

A salmon stand at the public market

Our rye bread sandwiches from the market

Our rye bread sandwiches from the market

6. Hotel Torni: This is one of the tallest hotels in Helsinki (it’s a low-rise city, so that’s not saying much) and it has a bar with a beautiful view on the 14th floor. Not only are the walls glass, the sides of the bar are patios enclosed in glass, too.

Helsinki at night.

Helsinki at night.

8. Museums: Between the National Finland Museum, Helsinki Museum, Design Museum, etc., there are plenty of places to see on a rainy – or cold- day. When we were visiting, the Helsinki City Art Museum was running an exhibit called “Good Grief! 50 Years of Peanuts in Finland.”
Helsinki City Art Museum

Helsinki City Art Museum

Tomorrow: Food in Finland…

Beautiful Helsinki

Around a park...

Around a park...

Since D. and I couldn’t make it to Morocco for the class break, we started looking around online for cheap rates at hotels and noticed that the Nordic countries — which were so expensive over the summer — were actually quite reasonable to visit in late October. Probably because it’s cold – but we don’t care. We are cold-weather people — we love chilly air, rain, clouds — basically, everything that depresses other people inspires us.

We never made it up to Finland over the summer, so we decided on Helsinki as our vacation spot. I got a great rate at the Hotel GLO, a very nice place located in the middle of downtown. It’s connected to the Hotel Kamp, which has a very lovely spa. Since we booked a suite, we also got free access to the spa, and the saunas. Can’t go to Finland without using a wood sauna, after all!

Our hotel room was decked out in typical Scandinavian design – wood floors (Why oh why don’t hotels in the U.S. do this? It’s so much cleaner than having some nasty carpeting!), minimal furniture, funky sinks and spigots. I particularly loved the table/lamps seen below. How multipurpose can you get?

Our hotel room had these table-lights. I want one!

Our hotel room had these table-lights. I want one!

 

Without giving you step-by-step account of everything we did, let me just say that, overall, we were very impressed by the city. It’s small. At just half-a-million inhabitants, its population is roughly the size of Milwaukee’s. Or Wyoming’s. And it’s beautiful. And very, very clean. No trash, no graffiti, no gross empty stretches of abandoned lots. No stinky alleyways.

Also, the architecture is amazing – every building in the central part of the city is either a lovely old 1890’s-type intricate buildling, a brightly-painted Art Deco building, or an Art Noveau building. They are all really well restored (or maintained).

Here are a few of my favorites:

Building across from our hotel

Building across from our hotel

Beautiful old building near the Design Museum

Beautiful old building near the Design Museum

Cool government office

Cool government office

The whole city looks like this! Amazing.

The whole city looks like this! Amazing.

Tomorrow: Our top sights in Helsinki…
Straight from Pune...

Straight from Pune...

D. and I returned from Finland to find a message in our mailbox that indicated we had a package waiting for us… somewhere. But we couldn’t read the terrible handwriting on it – only a phone number. And, seeing as we’d already used up our “French-speaking Friend Points” last week to deal with a plumber, we really didn’t know what to do. But the next morning, as I stepped out our back door to bring my rosemary plant in for the winter, I tripped over a huge cardboard box that was sitting on the stairs.

Hmm… how did a package get into the walled courtyard while my landlady was on vacation? We really have no idea. I find it hard to imagine a scrappy French Fed-Ex guy scaling the stone wall simply to deliver our ladoos and chivda. So, I’m chalking it up to divine intervention. Or the cleaning lady. Either one.

I opened it up to find that Aai and Papa had sent us 9 boxes of snacks. Yes, nine boxes. As well as a bar of sandalwood and rose soap and D. said is traditional to use to bathe with on the first day of Diwali. Well, we missed that, since it was Oct. 17, but we’re still enjoying the snacks.

There was also a nice card with Ganesha on it – although it’s all in Marathi, so I can’t read it (actually, I’m pretty sure it’s all in Hindi, not Marathi. But you have to understand,  “Marathi” is really my code word for “I can’t read any of it and don’t want to admit that my Rosetta Stone Hindi isn’t working, so I’ll pretend its all in a different language”).

In fact, I can’t read anything on any of the packages, and was somewhat hesitant to eat any of them before D. got home to tell me what they were. Hell, I probably would have eaten the soap or something.

My favorites, however, are definitely these things:

Sweet salty fried snacks

Sweet salty fried snacks

They’re fried little puffy squares with something vaguely sweet on the inside. I’m sure they’re terrible for me. So, now I just need to get D. to invite some people over who can help us enjoy these snacks, otherwise none of our clothes will fit us next week. But he doesn’t want to share…which I understand. I think we’re all a bit over-possessive about comfort foods from home. After all, I got mad at him for eating up all my Trader Joe’s peanut-filled pretzels earlier this fall. So, all’s fair in Foods from Home.