Vain Jälkiruokaa

just desserts

One of the most existentially disturbing things about being a foreigner is having to constantly tell people that you don’t know what’s going to happen to you.  In your own country you can get in trouble with the law and you can get evicted from your apartment.  As a foreigner, you can get evicted from a whole country and while it’s not exactly common, it’s not impossible for the average Joe Foreigner to make a simple mistake and then pay for it for years.  And at least in a bureaucracy-obsessed country like Finland, they keep incredibly good tabs on you.  I got a renewed residence permit and within a week I had to tell the Immigration police, the Maistratti (local register), and even my bank about all my sources of income, all my sources of debt and credit, and the exact timeline I plan on spending here.  When your income is based on dwindling grant money (which is a rant for another time), you probably don’t know where you’ll be or how you’ll survive in the next year, maybe even, like me, in the next two months.  It’s existentially disturbing because it forces you to admit things to complete strangers that you’ve been avoiding admitting to yourself.  Well, I’ve applied for grants but if I don’t get any, after the summer I will have to go back to the States. It sounds very logical, but it feels like ripping out your dreams and stomping on them.

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I’ve been frustrated this week.  Frustrated because of the ever-present stress of being foreign, frustrated at the precariousness of my position, frustrated with colleagues, people in general, frustrated with myself and doubting my decisions.  I was always the good decision-maker, the straight-A student, the responsible one.  I have goals that are ambitious yet realistic, I don’t covet material things or waste money, and I think relationships are difficult but that anything is possible with respect and communication. I’ve worked hard to make my dreams come true.  And I have to keep reminding myself that none of that entitles me to a happy ending.

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I had a friend in college who was a source of great wisdom.  I remember one night while we were studying, I was delicately peeling an orange, trying to get all the bitter pith off.  It was taking about an hour.  Offhand I remember saying, “You know, I think oranges are the universe’s way of teaching us perseverance.”  She gave me an exasperated look and said “Caitlin, oranges are the universe’s way of teaching you to eat the damn white stuff!”

At the time, I didn’t want to eat the white stuff.  I still don’t; I’ve since learned to just cut up my oranges so I don’t have to deal with the stickyness and the pith.  But I think she was right.  I think even the good things in life contain pith, and sometimes you have to take both at the same time and find ways to enjoy it anyway.  The pith is good for you–it has fiber.

Coffee also has fiber, but in a more metaphysical way.
Coffee also has fiber, but in a more metaphysical way.

This weekend was one of those days four times a year when people roam the city en masse and put their gastrointestinal health into the hands of strangers.  Yes, it was another Restaurant Day.  We started baking on Thursday evening.  My mind wasn’t in it, and after three batches of bubbly, spreading, bruleed-to-a-crisp messes, I realized that not only had I miscalculated the Fahrenheit to Celsius conversion, but I’d also set the oven to broil.

Good for s'mores.  Not good for s'mores macarons.
Good for s’mores. Not good for s’mores macarons.

After a brief culinary meltdown, I decided to take it as a life lesson.  Sometimes the most bewildering problems can be solved by simply paying attention.  And what’s more, you have to let go of whatever is weighing on your mind, even for a moment, in order to live in the present moment.

I learn something new every time I make these macarons.  This time around, it was that letting the freshly baked shells rest near an open, breezy window for a few hours before taking them off the paper helps a lot, and if they still have sticky bottoms, to leave them there upside down overnight.

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Of course, a professional pastry chef would say that if your macarons have sticky bottoms, you’re doing them wrong and should just start over.  But I think we can’t just throw things away in life because they’re not perfect.  We have to find ways to work with them.  People have sticky bottoms sometimes too, and lots of situations can be improved by letting things air out overnight.

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By a happy chance, we actually had a professional pastry chef patronize our little bakery table on Saturday.  She was half of an adorable older British couple and tried one of each flavor.  I was unsure of how it would go, since the temperature had been fluctuating with the wind between just right and slightly too warm for buttercream.  I shouldn’t have worried, because she was really impressed, especially with our variety of interesting flavours.  She laughed at our “discount macarons bin” and said she understood because even hers don’t always turn out!  And as she left she said she wished her students could make them like us!  It was such a little thing, but it meant so much.

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We set up in Esplanadi park across from the Louis Vuitton store (posh, right?). It started out fairly slow in the morning even though the park was so crowded.  The sunlight was gorgeous and we couldn’t have asked for better weather.  While I was enjoying being the Martha Stewart of Finnish eco-chic,  we got a lot of enthusiastic photographers interested in the macarons.

macarons closeup
Photo credit: the Instagram goddess Megan

I had set them up in a shallow cardboard box lid with a pretty green brocade design and lined them up in rows of contrasting colors.  I had made 75 paper boxes as well, which proved to be a very good idea, with eco-brown bottoms and kelly green tops with our logo in black, and the table covered in brown paper and some bunting made with leftover green and brown paper and twine.

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We have some friends who teach an Indian cooking class who had a table for Restaurant Day, so while I was busy selling macarons, our compatriots scored us some Indian treats.  Too late I spotted a press photographer who bent down to snap a photo of our table… at the very moment I was busy shoving a samosa in my mouth.  I tried to get him to take another but he gave me a sly smile and walked away.  So keep an eye out for that, I guess.  I’ll be internet famous!  For samosa-scarfing.  In my defense, it was delicious.

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One of my favorite movies of all time is Sabrina with Audrey Hepburn in her youthful prime.  I adore Audrey Hepburn but I never got into Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and I think it’s because I couldn’t relate to the character. Holly Golightly is indulgent, self-centred, and tries to hide her insecurity through bravado.  While watching, I can’t shake the feeling that she’s not quite connected with reality.

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But Sabrina I can relate to.  She’s also insecure and lives more in her own fantasies than in reality, but it’s the fantasy of youth and naivete.  It’s more forgivable.  She falls in love, she gets her heart broken, she feels as though her life is over, and she gets exiled to a culinary school in France to get herself together.  While there, she grows up and reconnects with reality–both the good and the bad.

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The most iconic scene for me is her first day in cooking class, learning to break an egg with one hand.  She fails spectacularly, but the chef says simply “next egg.”  It becomes a metaphor for life: whatever happens, you have to move on to the next thing and not dwell in the messes of the past.  And you might have to break a few (dozen) eggs to do it.

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These guys were called Keittöpojat, or “soup boys.” A Finnish friend told me it’s also a pun: ottaa keittoo (to take soup) is slang for drunken carousing, or something along those lines.

I just started taking this edX course with another college friend who suggested it—it’s about learning how to be a more “resilient” person.  I was curious, and since I’ve been on kind of a self-improvement kick this year and don’t really know what it means to be resilient (and apparently don’t have enough to do already?), I decided to give it a shot.  It’s been good, though; working through the exercises on the course is a good way to find the path again when I get confused trying to distinguish forest from trees.

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And sometimes, seagulls.

So far we’ve talked about stress, goals, and values.  I made a comment in the discussion that a few people thought was a good one, and I realized afterward that it’s one of those times I give really good advice to other people but fail to follow it myself.  I realized that just because I haven’t reached my goals yet doesn’t mean I’m living inconsistently with my values.  It doesn’t mean I’m not a successful person.  Goals are only goals when you haven’t gotten there yet–after you do them, they’re achievements.  If I had completed all my goals by now, I wouldn’t have any to strive for.

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We sold out of macarons and most of the other treats.  After we cleaned up the table, I walked around a bit to enjoy the beautiful evening and to take full advantage of the many dinner options.  I was really excited to find some bubble tea–so excited, in fact, that I think I scared the vendor a little.

Fake instagram pic
Fake instagram pic

There were so many different vendors it was hard to decide what to choose: Thai, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Spanish, Turkish, Greek, Italian, Dutch, and plenty of cupcakes and cheesecakes and chocolates.

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Several men were stirring giant vats of paella and meats, there was chicken being grilled on skewers over little portable grills, and some lamb on giant sword-like skewers, and plenty of kebab.  I decided on pad thai and spring rolls for dinner, following my nose to the Asian stall that smelled the best.

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It took me about 30 seconds to find a sunny spot in the grass and dig in.  I realized I hadn’t gotten a fork, so I went at it bare-handed.  What can I say?  I was hungry!  And it was delicious.

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Everyone else was busy and left to do their various things, so I spent a while walking around by myself, taking pictures and chatting with vendors.  Some were huge, professional-looking tents, and some had simple little tables like ours.  Some had big fancy posters and some had handmade Finnglish signs.

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I think my favorite was this guy, who had an adorable little black cart where he kept pitchers of milk and jars of sugar.  It’s the Finnish way to eat a cup of blueberries with milk and sugar in the summer, and it made me incredibly happy to see him.

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Berry-stained fingers are the mark of pure Finnish summer happiness

Restaurant Day is one of my absolute favorite things about Finland, and I think it’s because it really shows what a community there is here.  Expats complain a lot about the gloomy, less-than-friendly Finns, but I think those who complain haven’t really tried to experience the culture with an open mind.  In the summer everything comes alive, everything is bright and happy and festive, and the community is active and fun.

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“love potions”

I’ve written before about how I love the philosophy of Restaurant Day.  I love the idea of regular, everyday people sharing something so personal as food from their everyday culture, coming together for one day as members of the same community.

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And I really loved being out in the park, able to talk and interact with people from all walks of life.  I spoke with Finns who didn’t speak English, Brits who didn’t speak Finnish, a French family with two small children who loved everything strawberry.  American tourists from Dallas, some Finnish girls wanting advice on making macarons, an older Englishman who gave us this bit of trivia: Portugal is the only country in Europe that Britain has not tried to conquer.

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There was a band playing in the pavilion next to the super-posh (read: expensive) cafe, and as was walking through the crowd alone they were playing “Somebody to lean on.”

Music and I have a weird, complicated relationship, kind of like that dysfunctional couple everyone knows who break all the rules but stay together because they’re the only ones who really understand each other.  Music makes me believe in magic, in karma, in quantum entanglement of souls, in all sorts of things that don’t make any sense but happen anyway, even when the odds are quadrillions to one.  It always speaks to me when I least expect it.

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They say life has a funny way of happening when you’re busy planning things, and I think that’s true.  It’s also true that it’s the journey and not the destination, and that slow and steady wins the race and fools never prosper.  But we don’t ever seem to learn from parables, do we?  Not until we’ve lived out the situation, and looked back on it, do we realize that the parables were right all along.   It seems inefficient, but nature has given us this great drive to figure things out for ourselves, to interact and to do things, make things, innovate things.  It becomes all about the process and less about the endpoint.  After all, a stationary point is just a point, but a point in motion is a line, a curve, a wave, an equation.  Suddenly it becomes complex and interesting.  We’re all points in motion, and it’s all about the relation between one point and another.  It’s all social geometry.

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It’s too easy to lose sight of the Big Picture–not even the Big Picture of the whole world but just the Medium Picture of your own life.  I think we get caught up in minutiae and the moment, and we can’t really project our thoughts into another time when the worries of today will seem very small.  I think its important to remind ourselves that time goes on, and as I like to say, something will happen.  It may not be good, and it may not be what you want at the moment, but something will change and rock the boat and then your mind will be caught up dealing with that instead of whatever it is that’s bothering you right now.

I’m trying to take my own advice and keep that in mind.  It’s easier when it’s summer in Finland and the sky is beautiful and bright all day, the seagulls are happily stealing from tourists and it’s very easy to let the breeze carry away your thoughts.  Life is much better when you can find happiness in simple things: the sea, the sun, and sometimes, tiny imperfect macarons.

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