Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Exiled granny the supermarket
I had borrowed twenty euros from a friend. I had those twenty euros, no more, no less. I spent more time in the supermarket than usual to make sure I got the maximum bang for the buck. So called discount stores in the center of Paris don’t live up to their name as even the generic products on the lowest self are twice as expensive than the same in lower income neighborhoods. In the waiting line I added up prices once again in my head to avoid any embarrassing moments at the checkout counter, in front of the cashier. Some prices were slightly higher than those mentioned on the price tags but I scarcely made it.
   A gray haired lady in front of me was still packing her trolley shopping bag, which was now full even though some articles still lay on the counter. Other customers started getting irritated in the line. Too late, the lady realized that the trolley was too heavy and she couldn’t move it. Has she never been in a supermarket before? Anxious she glanced at the people around her. One can’t fill a shopping bag with twenty euros and my purchases were not heavy. I proposed to pull her trolley with the condition that she was not living far from the supermarket.

She had a superior smile on her face
Once outside I supposed she would turn in the direction of the council buildings. Instead, she headed towards the bridge, in the direction of Ile Saint Louis. I found it hard to believe that the granny shopping alone in Franprix was living on the prestigious Island in the middle of Paris. Maybe we would just cross the river to the Left Bank. She didn’t talk much. When she turned her head to look at the river I noticed her fine nose. She had a kind but somehow superior smile constantly on her face. The granny guided me to the west extremity of Ile Saint Louis. The mysterious granny happened to live in front of the place with the view of the Seine from her living room window. There was no lift so I carried the caddy up the stairs. It was hard and I wondered how she could have ever made it all alone. Anyhow, her apartment on the floor just above the building’s entrance, kind of an intermediary floor called entresol, was lacking light and rather modestly decorated. This kind of apartment with a low ceiling had generally lower rent than the floor above, more splendid in height and decoration. However, in Ile Saint Louis there is no such a thing as low rent. Every rat hole costs a small fortune.

Once inside the granny took a brick of lukewarm fruit juice from her trolley and poured me a glass. She handled the brick delicately like holding a precious teapot. She still didn’t do much talking, just thanked me simply and warmly when I left, the indecipherable smile still on her face. Once at the front door of the building, the guardian, who had peeped curious through the lace curtains when we entered, stepped out.
-          The princess is so nice and such a simple person, isn’t she?
-          Princess? I asked surprised.
-          Neith, the princess of Egypt! The guardian jubilated having been the one who broke the news.
At the same time she was amused about the fact that I didn’t know what kind of person I was dealing with. Her eyes were animated when she explained how the royal family was exiled to Paris some decades ago when she herself was still a young girl and her mother was the guardian of the house. She let me understand that some of the royal family members had died of a sleeping pill overdose in some of Europe’s palace hotels. Neith, one of the last members of the family and now impoverished led a lonely and sad life in Paris. She had gradually sold her other apartments in the building and kept only the entresol which she now occupied. Now she had no more properties to sell. The decoration being modest, the worthy furniture must have gone as well, piece by piece.

   I was astonished. Instead of assisting an ordinary poor elderly person, I had given my helping hand to a princess. One never knows, maybe she needed my help more than others.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

I finally got universal health care!
At last, I got good news from the Family Allowance Fund who finally accepted my demand for the universal health care, CMU. This could be considered a great victory as the eight-page claim form had boomeranged back with all the thirteen enclosed documents three times and I had regretted not only the lost time but also the wasted stamps. My family and I now had free health care. It means that we can go to the doctor and get medication without a penny being spent. I still had a half broken tooth in my mouth. In the meantime I had claimed a supplementary health care benefit and had been lucky to get it. But in the end, the amount covered only a part of the future operation. Therefore, I had postponed the operation and learned to masticate by using only the left side of my jaw.

A metallic crown for poors
I was finally able to go to the dentist! It was obvious that the half broken tooth couldn’t be prepared. I needed a crown. In my disappointment I learned that CMU covered only a cheap metal crown, not a porcelain one. The dentist didn’t even want to hear about a metal crown. He told me I would have a metallic taste in my mouth forever. I said I don’t care. All I want is to get a new tooth for free. But he still refused. The problem was that he had already started the dental operation. There was no coming back and I didn’t have one hundred and eighty euros for the porcelain crown. I argued fifteen minutes with the dentist’s accountant to make her accept an uncovered check. He promised not to cash it before the end of the month. 

Free end of the month credit by using a heque book 
It is not difficult to guess why French people are keen on their check books even though they are vanishing in other countries. The country being plunged into depression, check payment is poor people’s credit payment because it’s free of charge. Especially on Friday when you can be sure that it can’t be cashed until Monday. I do this every time a paycheck is to come on Monday.

   A 75 percent sponsored Paris Navigo transportation card and unprivileged people’s electricity and gas tariff were supposed to follow the CMU. I considered filling the claim forms for those two as soon as possible so that I could keep on using the metro without begging to social services every month.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

New handbag from the waist bin
After several weeks of scooter biking there was a huge hole in the sole of my left shoe with which I did the push offs. I made an appointment with social services - of which I was a regular customer now - to finance either a new pair of shoes or the Paris Navigo metro card. The latter was approved. Also the money was supposed to be available in two days. I was even luckier when I arrived home and found a nice second hand leather hand bag leaning against the common waist bin. In Paris people leave garments and other items still in good condition close to the waist containers for those in need. Many antique brokers also complete their stock by rich neighborhoods’ garbage. An old mirror frame you purchased not so cheap in the famous Clignancourt flea market has probably been found in one of the 16th arrondissement’s waste containers. 
The next day my new hand bag was noticed in the office.
-          Nice bag! Jee Eun Kim said, taking the bag and turning it in her hands. She then continued:
-          Couldn’t tell it is a no name brand bag. When I first came to Paris I was extremely surprised to see Parisians wearing whatever unbranded handbags, even cheap supermarket ones. In Seoul even the most modest working girl has a Vuitton, Channel or Hermes handbag. Wearing whatever hand bag in business would be a shame. I really expected to see even more fashionable bags on the streets of Paris.
-          Most Parisians are just ordinary people, we are not movie extras, I said.

Undeclared inheritance
She also let me know that she has always thought Scandinavian countries are rich and their citizens well-off. I responded that there was a period when levels of upward social mobility were high and a blue-collar worker’s son could become a state minister. A wrinkle between Jee Eun Kim’s eyes told me that she didn’t quite appreciate the idea. She nodded satisfied when I added that now we started also having very rich and very poor people like everywhere.
-          But I understand the taxes are high? She asked.

-          Yes, I would say so. Compared to the French system the main difference is that even small salaries and inheritances are taxed. I remember my grandfather once got a mean letter from the town tax office. According to the letter the administration had learned that he had gotten an inheritance that he had not declared. Grandfather was known as a calm man. But this time he got angry. He had, in fact, inherited an aunt. Except that the aunt was poor and the inheritance was nothing else than two worn-out linen kitchen towels. He took the inherited items together with the accusing letter and dropped in the town tax office with no previous warning. He threw both towels on the employee’s desk and said that the tax office could take one of them. He said he would appreciate if he could keep the less worn-out one. Finally they classified his file without taking the towel, I concluded. My boss found the story very funny. But I felt she didn’t believe it was all true.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Tampere accent in the Parisian playground
Laura pulled me by the hand towards the playground behind Notre Dame. It was Saturday. Children of all nationalities ran wild while some of the small ones lost their patience in line waiting for their turn to ride the square’s one and only swing. Among the children’s voices I thought recognize my hometown’s familiar dialect. It was a hand clapping game that started “I went to a Chinese restaurant”. Then it went on as something like that “the waiter asked me what is my name” and, strange enough, was also talking about being on a frozen lake. No doubt, Tampere dialect and frozen lake there were Finns hanging around. But when I looked around I could see no pale looking compatriots, only exotic looking children and parents.
-             Laura, I think some kids are speaking Finnish here with a Tampere accent. Why don’t you find them and go to play with them, I said.
   Laura was already on her way to run around the playground in order to hear everybody. A few minutes later she was in the middle of a clapping game with five dark skinned black haired girls of all ages. Then she came back to the bench to fill me in about her discovery.
-             Mum, these girls are from Tampere but they say I speak Finnish with a funny accent, she said.
    -  They’re right. You speak fluent Finnish but it sounds like a foreigner speaking. Don’t worry, they can understand you. Go back and play, I replied.
   It was obvious that I couldn’t guess the parents either before one of the girls approached a couple on the bench at the other end of the playground. I decided to go and say hello.
-         Hi, I heard your children speaking Finnish in the Tampere dialect. I was born in Tampere, I said in Finnish.
      We live in a Tampere suburb. I am from Kosovo and my husband here is from Afghanistan, the dark haired lady said in perfect Finnish. Then she added quickly:
-         We can’t live in our countries right now because of the war but we will go back as soon as we can.
-         -I think it must be difficult to move suddenly to another place if your children speak only Finnish, I said. The woman looked at her shoes.
-         It is hard to build a life in a country, if you think you will be leaving. But it is that… she started, suddenly looking me in the eyes.

-         It is that people in Tampere always ask when you will return, I guessed and went on:
-          You know what, when I first came to France people kept on asking when I would go back to my country. But nobody asks that any more. I don’t know why. Maybe they finally got tired of asking, I said. She smiled.

Too many children
-          Nice daughters, I said.
-        Two of them are ours, the three others are cousins, she replied quickly. But she hadn’t noticed that one of the girls had come to pick up her bottle of water.
-          Mummy! Why do you say some of us are cousins? We are your very very very own daughters, the girl said pulling out bottle in her flowered Marimekko shoulder bag.
I was so surprised by her strong Tampere accent that I couldn’t help smiling. But the mother looked confused and so did the father who had followed the discussion. 
-         I guess that a big family like that brings attention in Finland, where most families have one or two children, I remarked. She nodded and said:
-          People don’t understand why we have so many.
The husband added with comprehensive but incorrect Finnish:
-          It is more difficult with alcohol in Tampere. We are Muslims and we don’t drink.
-         But we are lucky to have Laestadian friends who don’t drink alcohol either, the mother said.
-          And they have seven children as well, the husband added and smiled.

They had booked a Seine cruise and they had to leave. The mother was a translator and the father was involved in computer programming. They had only a short Paris holiday. Laura spoke with a strong Tampere accent for the next few days. Then she lost it.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Poor people’s doctor wanted
Jee Eun Kim arrived in the office around 3 p.m. and she brought me a bag of pastel rose dragée sweets. I explained to her that in France these sugared almonds were consumed when celebrating a wedding or a newborn baby but I was delighted to eat them anyway with my afternoon coffee. To show recognition I put a handful of dragée sweets in my mouth.
   I shouldn’t. I broke my tooth. I needed to go to the dentist. Not to repair the broken tooth in the first place but to get a price quote to claim supplementary healthcare benefits to finance the operation. It promised to be expensive as I could feel I had only half of the tooth left in my mouth.
As long as my claim for universal health care was still on hold, I needed to find another provisory solution to finance my health care. These kinds of situations characterize the French benefit system. Even if you fulfill the criteria to get this or that benefit, the bureaucracy takes time and you need to find another solution or get by somehow without the benefit.
   The problem was that no dentist practicing in the center of Paris is willing to accept patients with government aid or universal health care. The French social security system is based on contributions and, in the beginning the universal health care was created to cover migrants and asylum seekers with no health care. Gradually more and more unprivileged nationals had fallen under the income ceiling and the local Obamacare, CMU has become the only way for the health care system to operate for more than five million people living in France.
   At the same time it becomes harder and harder to find a doctor who accepts these patients. Doctors practicing in the center of Paris pay high rents and, therefore, place their tariffs accordingly. When making the appointment the unwelcome “social” patient usually learns that the doctor is fully booked for months ahead whereas a upscale patient gets an appointment for the very next day.

Muslims praying in the middle of the street
The social security office was able to give me some “poor-people’s doctor’s” addresses, all in the north or east of Paris. The Goutte d’Or dentist near Sacré Coeur was the closest. However, when I crossed the hens running free on the sidewalk I felt like I was far away abroad. These few building blocks along Goutte d’Or Street have a scary neighborhoods’ reputation but now it was daytime and I felt quite comfortable. Store windows’ mannequins wore headscarfs, skullcaps and kaftans. A kind of a garage-mosque was too small for all of the gathered Muslims and most of them were praying in the middle of the street.
   When approaching I could see that the doctor’s waiting line went around the building block. Only those who had arrived at dawn were now lucky to sit in the waiting room. I looked at the people in line: Black and brown faces, hijab scarfs, flowing wide sleeved boubou robes. When I left Finland fifteen years ago my mother asked whether a Finnish national costume would be of any use in France. I imagined myself at the end of the line wearing my Häme home region’s long red woolen skirt, white apron, checkered vest and scarf, eighteenth century’s sharp lace hat and buckled shoes. I almost missed the costume now!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Crooked by the bank
As I practically never use my credit card, I started to wonder why the balance plunged regularly under the authorized limit. After a study of the recent bank statements I realized that the bank had started to take surprise commissions from my account every time the balance became negative and I used the card. The bank account being regularly in the red, I used to be charged according to an average annual proportional interest rate. 
   Now, even a one euro purchase was penalized by a fixed fifteen euros commission. All together the commissions taken now and then represented a remarkable amount. In fact, the merchant bank hadn’t missed my impoverishment and had taken this as an opportunity to redefine the terms and conditions. Without taking care of informing me about this in any way. That’s how the bank had managed to steal substantial amounts from me every month without us even noticing it. I contacted our bank advisor who unfortunately was in the blabla mode and didn’t give me any other reason than the arrogant “Madam, I regret that you don’t agree with our terms and conditions”. I didn’t agree with the bank’s idea to attack us when we were lying down.
   I decided to get my money back and write to the bank Mediator. I put Jessie J’s “Price Tag” on but then realized I needed more adrenaline for the task. I got boosted by AC/DC’s “Moneytalks”
“Dear Mediator,
I am requesting your mediation regarding my contestation of the recent bank commissions, which had not been taken into consideration by my bank, Crédit Commercial de Paris. 
   In fact, Crédit Commercial de Paris has taken the liberty to change the terms and conditions of my account by a unilateral decision, without any previous negotiation or written announcement. Not being informed, I have not been able to anticipate the change and, therefore, a substantial amount of commissions has been taken from my account without my consent. Please find enclosed the three latest bank statements.
   As a client of Crédit Commercial de Paris since ten years, I would expect being contacted in case of such a radical change of my terms and conditions. I remain open to any negotiations concerning the new modalities of the account and would appreciate to receive a written document about the proposed changes. In the meanwhile, I look forward to Crédit Commercial de Paris’s earliest reimbursement of the commissions taken without my consent.
   I thank you in advance for your attention to my contestation. I am confident that your kind assistance will help to reestablish a good client relationship with my bank.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

What is social services mum?
Once in the building’s hall I collected the mail. The Paris social services navy blue logo on an envelope attracted the attention of Laura who can now read well.
-          What is social services mummy? She asked.
-          It is a service that gives money to poor people, I replied without thinking twice about what I was saying.
-          Are we poor? Laura asked incredulous.
-          No, well, no. We are not rich but not poor either. We are normal, I lied.
-          Then what is the letter? She asked.
-          Oh, this one. It must be an advertisement, I said opening the envelope.
-          Yes, they now advertise their services to all Parisians. They want everybody to know that they can give money in case somebody is in need, I explained reading the letter at the same time.

This one was, in fact, inviting Laura to Red Cross's Mardi Gras Party for underprivileged children. Before Christmas she had pointed to the Red Cross collection on a street corner asking me how they know who the poor people are and where they live. I responded they have their registers. Had I gone too far in downplaying my life? Until now I had avoided to talking about social services, benefits and allowances in my daughter’s presence. I was afraid that she would start playing “social services” or “benefits claimant” with her classmates during the school recreation. However, the pretending started becoming more and more difficult. Last time we went to the public swimming pool she asked what was the RSA benefits claimer I was talking about and what papers I was presenting to get a free entry. This time also I had told some stupid lie. 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Kimchi and rye bread for lunch
The Millefleur’s first longed-for paycheck had come and gone, as well as the complementary income support benefit. Those two scarcely covered the rent and most important invoices. I had absolutely no money left. It seems that the social system is built in a way that one needs the whole package. The universal health care, 75 percent reduced Navigo card and the social energy tariff were still to come. Without mentioning the social housing I was waiting for since four years now.

I used to collect the rest of the previous day’s dinner and put in in my lunch box in order to warm it up in the office. Today the lunch box was empty. We have eaten all of the cassoulet the previous evening. My daughter Laura is growing fast and helps herself three times during dinner. It was lunchtime and I it came to my mind that the other day Jee Eun Kim brought delicious homemade kimchi of which there was still some left in the office’s refrigerator. Although I like this traditional fermented side dish made of vegetables and red chili pepper flakes, even a Korean can’t eat bare kimchi for lunch, to say nothing of a Finn.

A granny selling Beuf bourguignon
I was heading to the refrigerator to eat some kimchi when I saw a white haired woman entering the store with a trolley.

-          Bonjour. I have a nice Beauf bourguignon lunch here. I just cooked it at home and I am now proposing it at ten euros the bread included. Nice deal, isn’t it? She said opening the trolley and showing one of the plastic boxes containing the portion. The store was filled with an appetizing odor. 

-          Yes indeed. I am tempted but I had my lunch already, I lied.

-          We can make it eight euros, or even seven. Look, I am retired but I can’t make it until the end of the month with the state pension, the old woman said.

-          I am sorry but I have had my lunch today. Maybe another time. Try the antique dealer or the jewelry store over there, I said pointing my finger at the neighboring stores.

I returned to the refrigerator, took a plateful of bare kimchi and a glass of tap water. I sat at my lunch table by the window. Through the window I saw the granny pulling her caddy in the antique dealer’s direction.

While enjoying my kimchi I remembered having put a big envelope in my handbag in the morning when checking the mailbox and rushing out with my scooter bike. The envelope was large. I hadn’t noticed it was my darling grandma sending news from Finland. I could feel a round shaped flat object inside. When I opened it, rye bread fell out. It was partly broken because of the long journey. It was a traditional dark sour bread with a round hole in the middle.  In the past the hole was needed because these breads were dried in a hanging wooden rod near the kitchen ceiling. 

I took a bite of it right away to beat the strong kimchi taste I still had in my mouth. I couldn’t help noticing how uncommon my lunch menu was today: kimchi, rye bread and tap water – actually many glasses of tap water.