French boarding school dreams

Milja Kaunisto, 07/10/2011Things you must know about me.

  1. I’m Finnish. You know, Finland. The country that got named either after a bog (Fen-land), of for being at the end of the world (Fin-land).
  2. As a child, I dreamed about living in France. For me, a history and art geek, it was supposed to be the ultimate rush. As it turns out, I was right.
  3. I’ve tried other countries. First Finland (duh), then France, then the USA, Malaysia, the Canary Islands. Always kept coming back to France.
  4. My thing about France is inexplicable. I’ve suffered six years of Paris, after all, and still stayed.
  5. No, I will not start on French-bashing. These people may look at me weirdly and snigger at my accent, my rowdy habits and my Viking matron look, but they let me stay.
  6. I love food. I’m in awe of french food. The wines don’t exactly bother me, either.

To be sure, all things are difficult at the beginning. For me, it all started in a Berry county boarding school, in the middle of French countryside.

We used to spend family vacations in an old French farm house when I was a kid. A pre-pubescent girl hardly needs added romanticism to screw up her hormone-ridden brain, but spending endless warm summer days in a house that was built in the year of ‘La Révolution‘, 1789… I was bitten by a big fat hairy beret-headed France-bug with enough winey venom to have me drugged for my remaining days. For me, the epitome of romanticism was studying in a French boarding school. Through fraud (a letter written in french by a friend) I got accepted to Lycée Alain-Fournier boarding school in the medieval city of Bourges.

Ah! A castle, transformed into school housing, with creaking oak-stairway leading to my solitary room in one of the turrets, lit by only torches and candlelight! My days were filled with boarding school dreams fit for ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses‘. So when I packed up and moved my bags set out to explore my new school-castle, I truly felt like the hero of my own life.

Milja Kaunisto, 07/10/2011

The truth was somewhat different. Calling the boarding house of Lycée Alain-Fournier a castle would be grossly stretching the truth. It is, however, a shining example of the sixties functional institution architecture; a Stalinesque-grey barrack with doors that may or may not have been orange once upon a painter’s cigarette break.

By the way, upon my first sight of the disturbingly ugly school, approximately all of the school’s two thousand students were outside, forming a circle around an anonymous grey steel barrel moving around it like hoards of pilgrims around the Stone of Kaaba, covering the asphalt yard in ritual Marlboro smoke.

My solitary room in a tower lit by candlelight? A dormitory for eighty girls, sort of hospital-beds separated only by flimsy pliable walls. A brown-gray blanket neatly folded on the bed. I could have another upon request, they assured me, if it got too cold. They wouldn’t start heating the dormitories before mid-november.

The art-oriented study program I had opted for? Sorry, no room left! But I could opt for ancient greek or latin instead! Mercifully, a month later I was transferred to the music specialization class, and another month later, I started actually learning french. By the end of the school year, I had become a chain-smoker, had found friends, a lovely french sweetheart to write weepy love songs about, and I could curse the teachers in fluent french. But I could never really get over the fact that my boarding school wasn’t the castle I had dreamed about. (I have a strange, inexplicable love for old, moldy castles, the murkier the better.)

To answer the question about how I ended up in France: I just thought I would get to live in a castle. Fifteen years later, I still don’t. But I do see one from my bedroom window. That’s good enough for me. For now.

All images © Milja Kaunisto

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Milja Kaunisto

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