Sunday, December 23, 2012

My first white Christmas

The main road just outside our driveway 
Officially winter began a few days ago, but if you live in Finland the darkness, snow and cool frigid air have been hanging around for several weeks already.  They say that February is the coolest month in Finland, but since late November the temps have already dipped down in the single digits Fahrenheit (minus 10 or more Celsius). Mother nature ushered in a blizzard in late November to remind me once again that I no longer live in California where people are complaining about a little "cold", rain and frost in the mornings.  The snow fall has been quite steady on and off for several weeks now and I am learning what it means to do "snow work" in my new home.  Our current home has a long driveway and the snow must be shoveled at least once or twice per day after a hard snowfall.  I think I am getting used to it, at least it is good exercise.  We have received approximately 27+ inches of snow (70 centimeters) this December.  This is a great amount even by Finnish standards this early in the season.

The benefits of the snowfall is that it helps to combat the darkness by brightening things up a bit and it gives the kids many creative things to do outside after school.  It is also fun to get out and go cross country skiing or walking in the winter wonderland.  I am actually very happy to be able to celebrate a White Christmas this year which will be a first for me.  In California where I grew up it would be virtually impossible to get snow on Christmas and there was always this romanticism tied to the notion of a "White Christmas".  Therefore this year is really a special and unique Christmas for me and my family.  I wanted to wish all my family, friends and other blog readers a safe and happy holiday season.  I started my expat blog one year ago and have really appreciated the support and comments.  Cheers and Happy New Years!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Recharging my batteries before the long Finnish winter

After 15 months of living in Finland, I waited patiently and finally made it back home.  Knowing that November is a dark and dreary month in Finland, I thought I would take advantage of the cheaper late autumn flights and come home for the Thanksgiving holiday. Also, I thought the longer being away from home would hopefully help me to rediscover and appreciate it more. I was very excited to make the long journey back to California after so long and had some nervous anticipation of what to expect after having been away from family and friends for so long.

It felt quite surreal as the plane touched down in San Francisco International airport.  Was the Bay Area going to be this magical land of my lost dreams or just a big let down?   Well, the trip home started with a massive traffic jam along the freeways from the airport in San Francisco most of the way home to Moraga where my parents reside.  The ride home would normally only take 40 minutes, but in bumper to bumper traffic it turned into about 1 hour 20 minutes to get home.  Welcome back home Mark, if you didn't forget we actually have "real" traffic here in California, not like Finland.

Like anyone who leaves their country and returns home to visit, there are certain items one craves and misses.  For me, they were simple items, like eating fresh hummus, fresh salsa and authentic Mexican food (not Tex Mex).  Not to mention, getting good San Francisco sourdough bread.  Oh, those little pleasures in life.  Of course, it was awesome catching up with family and friends and getting a big dose of sunshine.  We actually headed up to the Sonoma Valley (an area famous for vineyards) one day and had a beautiful outdoor lunch at Francis Ford Coppola's winery.  We lucked out with the weather on that day, as it as actually around 22 Celsius (71 Fahrenheit).  I had forgotten that Novembers in Northern California can actually be quite nice if one is lucky.  The weather went from about 16 - 22 Celsius during my stay (60-71 Fahrenheit).  Coming from a cold and rainy Finland, this was just what the doctor ordered.

What did I really learn and notice about coming back to the San Francisco Bay Area from Finland? Besides the ever present traffic and crowds, I also noticed the American marketing machine is still on full throttle ahead.  I went to a Target shop (US chain store that has a bit of everything) to grab some small items to bring back to Finland.  It was becoming the Christmas season (mid November), but still a bit early and before the famous Black Friday (day after Thanksgiving Holiday).  However, the store was packed and frantic shoppers were buying everyone under the sun.  The store and shoppers were definitely on full Xmas mode.  I guess that is one thing I had forgotten while living in Finland.  With the exception of Hullut Päivät (Crazy days) at Stockmann, Finland doesn't really engage in this kind of marketing fervor and mad house shopping.  Also, I noticed that I had to keep a bit of a closer eye on my 6 year old son while shopping in large stores and even playing outside in the front yard of my parent's home. The United States is a big place and unfortunately children do occasionally get snatched or hit by cars.  Even though I grew up and lived in very safe neighborhoods in California, I would definitely say that Finland as a whole is safer.

So, the trip was wonderful in may ways and my batteries were definitely recharged.  I will always have a place in my heart for the San Francisco Bay Area that is not going away.  With that said, I think experiencing a different place and a new culture can only grow you as an individual.  Did coming home make me regret moving with my family to Finland?  No, I wouldn't say so, but it definitely made me appreciate things at home I might have once taken for granted.   There isn't month that goes by when someone in Finland asks me why I decided to leave sunny California behind to come here.   Beyond explaining the family move, I usually tell them the same thing, I tell them that California is and will always be my home and it is not going away.  I let them know that I am happy to experience their country and explore a new culture in Europe and I tell them that I will eventually return to my San Francisco Bay Area when this Scandinavian interlude ends.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Excuse me

OK, so I will hopefully not get any "hate mail" from Finns for posting this. I just wanted to keep to the theme of the "observer", based on my experiences and observations living in Finland for the last year.  So, this week's topic is on manners and using "excuse me" ("anteeksi" in Finnish). Anteeksi translates into "pardon me", "excuse me" or just plain "sorry".  Finns also say the actual English words "sorry" or "oops" in other situations.

In my observations over the last year, I have noticed that Finns rarely use "excuse me" unless they pretty much accidentally run into you.  :)  If you are standing in an aisle at the store looking at something and then someone is about to come down that aisle with a shopping cart (assuming they cannot get by without you moving), they will typically stand there with a look of frustration in their face if you do not move away and let them through.  They will typically remain silent and wait for you to move out of the way.  A simple "excuse me" (anteeksi) would work wonders for me, but most folks just don't seem to want to say that in Finland.

I am not sure if it is just me, but I also notice a general lack of patience these days. Maybe, I am just stuck in Californian time.  :)  Just the other day, I went to the grocery store on a crowded Friday night.  First of all, the cars were storming in and out of the parking lot, fighting for spots and not really paying attention to anything.  I was walking through the parking lot and practically had to dodge cars that didn't seem to care or notice that I was trying to cross the road.  Then, once I got into the store itself, I could barely walk without getting trampled over by shoppers.  You would have thought they were rushing to get the last items on the shelf as if they were preparing for the apocalypse.  The reality was that Saturday was a Holiday and they were stocking up for the weekend since the stores would be closed.  However, the stores would open again on Sunday, so not the end of the world.

I don't really get annoyed anymore by the apparent rudeness of some folks in these situations.  It might not be actual rudeness in some situations, but a lack of wanting to talk.  I just try to go on with my day and keep a smile on my face when encountering these situations.  The point is that you cannot change people and cultures, you need to accept them for what they are.  Certain situations living abroad are going to seem a bit more annoying than others, but one must remember that they are no longer in their own country and they must adapt to cultural standards and norms no matter how odd they might feel.  My solution is just to keep being my polite self and smile at everyone.   

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Finnish home versus the American home

This idea has already be written about by other bloggers, but it is something I had personally been thinking about for a while.  There are many differences between the American home and the Finnish home, some obvious and others subtle.  I thought it might be interesting to discuss a few of them for this current blog article.

I have mentioned this in a much earlier blog entry, the biggest difference is the size of the home.  Many Finns live in homes with their families that are around 100 square meters, which is about 1,100 square feet.  You typically don't see homes more than 175 square meters ( 1,900 square feet).  Of course, there are bigger and smaller homes, but they aren't the standard.  There are 2 reasons for this that I can see: 1)  Finns are generally more efficient than Americans, they are wise with the space they have and do not need tons of extra "wasted" space.  2)  The Nordic weather means that you need to heat your house and it would be very costly to heat your 3,000 square foot mansion for 5-6 cold months each year.  :).  The home we are living in now is a bit smaller than our home in California, but I have gotten used to it and we use space more efficiently.

Finnish homes typically have plain white walls!  I am not sure why many Finns like the plain white walled look because I really don't care for it.   I think it is sterile and cold.  Luckily, the home we are currently living in is not typical of a Finnish home.  Many of the walls were painted with various colors.  I personally want to avoid a hospital like environment in my home and appreciate some color.  Seems like Finns have a fear of using colors.   :)

Many Finnish home do not have a drying machine.  Americans definitely don't understand this one and would hate the inconvenience, but it seems that now Finnish families with younger kids do have drying machines.  I think much of the older generation got used to just hang drying their clothes and many others feel the extra energy used it just wasted.  Yea, I agree it is less energy wasteful to hang dry clothes, but sorry I am just going to be lazy and pop my clothes in the dryer and enjoy the convenience.  :)

Finnish homes generally have smaller kitchens and smaller appliances.  You typically don't see these over the top American style kitchens in Finland.  You know the ones with the huge counter tops, Island in the center, 6 grills, double refrigerator, huge double oven, stone pizza oven, pots and pans hanging down, etc.  I am sure that there are exceptions, but I haven't seen them myself.  Sure, it is nice to have all this fancy stuff, but you can still cook just about anything with a smaller kitchen.  It just takes some planning, preparation and patience.  I never really had an excessive American kitchen, so I am doing just fine with the smaller version here in Finland.

I have yet to see a home in Finland with either a "walk-in" closet or a master bathroom.  These items are very typical of  the American household.   I think just about every home in American has a master bathroom, and many have "walk-in" style closets.  Sure, they are nice to have, but now that I have moved with to Finland, I realize that they are not necessary.  Having more is not always better.  However, I do have to admit that they are nice to have, especially the privacy and convenience of the master bathroom that is always separated from the other bathrooms that are used in America for the children or guests.

Finnish homes are generally well insulated and have more efficient heating systems.  Most Americans homes have central air and heating units where the air is pumped up through the home.  These systems are a bit noisy and don't seem as efficient now having lived in Finland for the last year.  The more outdated way in Finland to heat a home is to use individual floor heating units they call "batteries".  In the newer homes each room has individual floor heating, that can also be controlled individually. It is nice to be able to control the rooms you want, instead of just pumping warm air through the vents throughout the entire home.  The heating systems in Finland make no noise and keep the rooms warm for several hours after they are turned off. I guess it makes sense that the systems are more efficient in Finland, considering how cold the winters can get.  I wonder why the United States doesn't seem to get past their noisy and clunky central air heating systems?  Anyhow, I find many of these differences interesting after having spent a year abroad.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Hullut Päivät - Crazy Days

It seems that American marketing techniques have infiltrated Finland.  This week, Finland's largest department store, Stockmann had their "Hullut Päivät" or "Crazy days" store promotions.  And crazy it was, it brought hordes of maniacal shoppers to the stores.  They had massive amounts of signs and promotions to lure in customers in, like pieces of metal being sucked into one giant magnet.  

Since I have lived in Finland, I have not seen many American style marketing tactics being used, with most stores just doing some basic newspaper promotions, etc.  The recent event at Stockmann was like experiencing the day after Thanksgiving's "Black Friday" in America all over again.  The parking lots were full early and the stores were buzzing with energy.  The stores even featured people dressed in costumes and they were having canned conversations with each other to create more fervor.  It went something like this "Hey, did you know about the great deal in electronics", "No, can you show me" and then they would proceed to the electronics department trying to lure more suckers along with them.

The irony of these crazy days is that there aren't really any crazy good sales going on.  They are simply sucking you in and then giving a few good deals, but most of the items are not really at bargain basement prices.  They had many items in bins just outside the store to get your attention and then the shoppers would walk into the store and unload half their wallets.   I never thought the Finns were very good at marketing, but Stockmann has it down to a science.  Finnish businesses should take note, but is this a good thing?  Let me now your opinion on the American marketization of Finnish products.    Who knows before long Black Friday will invade Finland, but I sure hope not anytime soon.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Blissfully, Bohemian Berlin

Brandenburg Gate

Yea, I know what you are thinking.   Your blog is called "Scandinavian interlude" and it is more or less about   an American's life in Finland, but you keep on writing about other European countries these days.  We had some wonderful adventures in Europe last summer and then finally the we took this little weekend break away from the children to escape to Berlin, Germany.  I promise this is the last non Finland post for a while, at least until my wanderlust resurfaces again.  :)

Checkpoint Charlie

I have been to Germany a few times in the past, but essentially just a few touristy destinations.  As a post college graduate I had done Munich's Oktoberfest, I visited the solemn Holocaust memorial in Dachau and more recently ventured down to Stuttgart to visit a friend.  The family also did a Bavarian adventure to see the castle Neuschwanstein in Southern Germany that inspired Walt Disney to create his own magical land.  This weekend trip would be reserved for the post Soviet bloc eastern city of Berlin.  Berlin has quite a past history and more recently was divided into two distinct sides (East and West from 1961-1989).  West Berlin was part of West Germany and East Berlin was part of the Socialist Soviet bloc country of East Germany (German Democratic Republic or GDR).  It was hardly a democratic country back then if you know what I mean.  A daunting wall that was erected in 1961 that surrounded East Berlin and kept the East Berliners out of West Berlin.  It is so hard for me to comprehend how this happened to a city like Berlin.  Can you imagine a major city like New York or London being divided by a wall and one side was forbidden to visit the other?  Many of the people trying to flee the East side were shot near the wall by border guards.  We explored much of the cities historical roots during our trip.  We visited the GDR museum which outlined life on the East side and we also visited the Checkpoint Charlie station which featured a history museum based on people's attempts at escape from one side of the city to the other.  This piece of history was very fascinating and something that I was aware of but never had been able to get so close too.

Remaining section of the Wall

Berlin is not all WW2 and Soviet bloc cold war history though, it is an interesting city in many different ways.  The city offers a little bit of everything for visitors.  If you like shopping, it has a large district for that.  If you like going to the Zoo, it features two of them.  If you enjoy the opera or the Philharmonic, it has those.  If you prefer to see museums, the city has many wonderful ones.  Nightlife and art are also huge in Berlin.  The city has become one of the most bohemian and liberal cities in Europe.  One might make a bit of a comparison to Amsterdam in Holland, but perhaps on a larger scale minus the canals.  My wife and I decided after seeing many of the tourist spots on the first day to do an alternative tour the second day.  So, we did a guided walk known as the "Real Berlin tour".  This tour was combined with a German guide who took us to many alternative neighborhoods that features interesting tidbits, street art and magical courtyards.  There are so many different neighborhoods to explore that one might miss them if just checking out the main tourists areas.  This walk featured many stops in the bohemian Kreuzberg area of Berlin.  Here we saw most of the famous street art, a man living in a tree house in former "no man's land" between the East and West side and a small urban farm.  This district reminded me a bit of Berkeley or Haight St. in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Kreuzberg Street Arts

We only had 2 full days to explore Berlin and just scratched the surface, but I thought we achieved a nice understanding of the city and taste of what it offers.  Of course, since I am writing a blog about living in Finland, I must make a few comparisons.  It wouldn't be fair to compare Berlin to Helsinki, because it is massive in size by comparison to Helsinki.  Berlin has currently about 3.5 million people to Helsinki's 500 thousand.  Also, one must use the metro or other forms of public transportation to get around in Berlin while the center of Helsinki is quite compact and can be explored easily on foot.  I also noticed that prices in Berlin were a bit cheaper, especially in light of the fact that it is a capital city.   Food was definitely cheaper and we could get a beer for 2.50 euros or a glass of wine for 7 euros in a restaurant.  In Helsinki beers run about 6-7 euros in a bar and wine is easily 12 euros or more per glass.  Differences aside, they are both interesting cities in their own right.  I would however highly recommend a visit to Berlin and set aside at least 3 days minimum to explore.  Berlin is only a 1.5 hour flight from Helsinki.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Food culture differences (Finland versus US)

A new American girl just started at my daughter's international school in Espoo.  Recently at school, my daughter was the last one in the cafeteria with the exception of the new girl.  Why had they stayed behind when everyone else was done eating and had left?  They both had trouble eating their food plates and when the teachers were not looking, they dumped their food in the garbage.  :) It seems that they are missing their mac n cheese, french fries, burritos and chicken nuggets.  Yup, the food staples of the American school child are definitely not found in Finland.  In Finland school cafeterias feature items that you might even find in an adult buffet.  Depending on the day, you might find salmon, potatoes, meatballs, stew and even fish soup.  It is "real food", not just the preservative laden food that you would find in US school cafeterias.  My wife and I think that this would be a good shift for her in order to adopt better habits, but she is really slow to change.  It is hard to break these habits and she still yearns for Kraft Macaroni and cheese any chance she gets.  There seems to be some kind of market for "American" food here in Finland, because there is a specialty shop that sells American goods and there is an "American" shelf at the local K market food chain.  I personally tend to stay away from that stuff, because I just don't really feel like spending 5 + euros for some Peanut Butter or Jello pudding.  I can live without my American items for now.  :)

Surprisingly enough there is also a noticeable difference in lunch culture of Finland versus what I was used to in the States.  Finland tends to favor large, heavy lunches and many of them tend to be "all you can eat" buffet style places.  Many of these buffets feature heavy meat stews, fish, potatoes, bread and butter, heavy pasta salads, etc.  It is pretty rare to just find basic food, a light sandwich or burrito kind of place.  Also, not sure if it is just my office or not, but almost everyone tends to go out for sit down lunches, definitely not an "eat at your desk" culture. In my previous job in California, I think only about 30% of the people went out for lunch.  The rest either grabbed something to go or brought their own lunches from home to eat at work.  I think part of this has to do with America's "rat race", go go go work culture, where the Finns actually take time to go to lunch.  I have already mentioned in earlier blog articles, about the differences in food varieties in Helsinki versus San Francisco so I will not go into too much detail here.  Finland is however making some strides in establishing more ethnic varieties of food as more as more immigrants have been coming here. See my earlier post "Work life in downtown Helsinki".

Finnish staples

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Do Finns trust foreigners?

Writing an expat blog has been generally a rewarding and thought provoking experience.   Every once in a while, it is good to explore more sensitive and perhaps even controversial topics.  My thoughts I write in this blog are based on observations, not stereotypes or rumors.  The subject of trust and rules will be the topic of this post.  Do you believe Finns fully trust foreigners living in their country?  See my examples below.

The first example would be applying for, an receiving, a debit/credit card from a Finnish bank, called S-Pankki.  I have tried and have been rejected in regards to my first application for a credit card.  First of all, I was initially not even eligible to apply for this card, because the bank felt that the identifications I provided were not sufficient.  I provided 3 different methods of identification:  my US passport, my biometric police department issued Finnish residency card and my Kela card (Finnish social security card).  All three of these cards were deemed insufficient to even begin the credit card application process, according to S-Pankki.  Two of these IDs provide a photo and the biometric card has fingerprints, both issued by the police department.  The bank told me that rules say, I need a valid Finnish driver's license.  :)  Well, first of all I think those rules are just plain ridiculous and quite odd, but whatever.  Finally after living in Finland long enough, I managed to get a Finnish driver's license which can be obtained after one has lived in the country for 6 months.  So, I went back to S-Pankki with the new driver's license as proof of my identity.  The S-Pankki representative was fine with this ID now, so he helped fill out my application and told me to wait approximately 3 weeks for the card and PIN numbers to arrive in the mail.  So, I waited patiently and felt good knowing that I had finally provided the correct identification that S-Pankki requested.  A few weeks later a letter from S-Pankki arrived in the mail.  Would this be my PIN number before my actual card arrived?  I opened the letter and to my complete disbelief, it was a rejection letter from S-Pankki.  I had been denied a credit card and there was no explanation.  All that trouble to finally provide the correct identification and then they reject me?  My background includes a solid work history, sufficient monthly steady income, and excellent credit history, including several credit cards (with never actually having used the cards for anything other than monthly convenience (i.e. not using them for the rolling "credit" function)).  I had just been rejected with no reason for a credit card with a 5,000 Euro limit?  I do not have any debts in Finland and I have a job, why was I rejected?  I guess we will never really know as my wife tried to call the bank and request information and all we received was "we do not have an obligation to tell you the reason".  So, you will not help me figure out what to do to get approved, including not being able to confirm if there was some information that the bank perhaps did not have that they needed, so then what I am supposed to do?  I am really at a loss for words.  I am not a student trying to get his first credit card, I have a long work and an excellent credit history and have been rejected.  Could this be that I am trying as a foreigner in Finland?  My wife had no trouble getting her card.  What could possible be different between the two of us, other than our citizenship.  You be the judge.

The next mistrust example comes when simply trying to verify my identity in regards to a potential house loan  application at Nordea bank in Finland.  We didn't get any customer service from S-Pankki in regards to the credit card fiasco, so how would Nordea bank respond when trying to confirm my identify for a loan?  So, I met up with my wife at the Nordea branch in Kamppi in Helsinki.  This time I brought my brand new Finnish driver's license, Finnish (biometric, police issued) residence card and Kela card.  So, would the Finnish driver's license which was lacking at S-Pankki be enough to simply verify myself?  Well, I presented my card and also the other ID's just in case.  The representative went to some back room with my driver's license and then came back and said "We cannot identify you with this, this driver's license was exchanged from a California license, so we now need your US passport as well to verify who you are."  Ha  ha ha, so in S-Pankki the passport was not good enough and they need a Finnish driver's license, now in Nordea the driver's license is not good enough and they need my passport.  This was becoming so ridiculous, and again the customer service person said, "sorry, there is nothing I can do".  So, I guess again, 2 valid ID cards with my picture and both issued by the Finnish police station is not good enough to identify who I am?  What gives?  I am still trying to figure out how to deal with banks in Finland.  Let me know if you have any tips, other than changing my citizenship ;)

The Finns, at least in banks simply have no customer service and do not trust.  Honestly, I don't think these ridiculous rules would be the same in the United States.  Were these simply their arcane rules, or other examples of mistrust of foreigners?  I just don't really appreciate that when I am simply trying to verify my identity or apply for a credit card that I am treated like a small child and have to jump through 5 hoops in order to take care of something so simple.  Hopefully, this will be my last example, as I wait patiently for my re-application for a credit card via S-Pankki.  Maybe the 3rd time is a charm?   :)

Update 23.8.2012 - I was just rejected a second time by S-Pankki again.  This 2nd application only carried a 3,000 Euro credit limit and I attached a full US work history and current employment to the application.  Considering I have worked for the previous 17 years and have solid credit history, this is definitely a case of this bank discriminating based on race or nationality.  If you looking for a bank in Finland, please do not support S-Pankki.

Update 19.9.2012 - Sampo Pankki granted my wife and myself credit cards, lines of credit and a home loan. The customer service rep was very friendly and it was an ease applying for the loans/cards.  Good to know that not every bank in Finland discriminates.  :)

*** Hint - If you are moving to Finland anytime soon and would like to establish a loan or credit card, try Sampo Pankki (recently purchased by the Danske Bank group).  ***

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

One year anniversary living in Finland

With nervous anticipation I left San Francisco with my son and a one way ticket on August 15, 2011 to join the rest of my family in Finland.  Today marks the one year anniversary of my move from San Francisco, California to Finland. What a year it has been!  I cannot even imagine all that has happened during the last year, it feels like 5 years were packed into one.

When I left San Francisco, I had ditched most of my material possessions, except for a few of my favorite items including my trusty road and mountain bikes.  Would Finland wait for me with open arms?  It would be a year of many adventures, ups, downs and cultural learnings.  It is definitely a year that I will cherish for the rest of my life and will never forget.  When I arrived in mid August, I was still working for a US company and worked remotely from home.  This "work from home" job situation would last till the end of the year.  During the later months of 2011 as the rain started to pour down and darkness reared it's ugly head, I was officially introduced to my first Finnish winter.  Would I survive having heard so many horror stories about the cold, ice and darkness?  I used several survival tactics which I wrote about in an earlier article on my blog.  I took the winter head on, by spending time outside the house cross country skiing, swimming and working out in the city gyms and writing my blog.  I absolutely was not going to spend my time locked up in the house, depressed, staring outside into the darkness. 

Trips were plentiful this year and first one included a visit to Stuttgart, Germany to see a friend and the Alsace region in France.  Later in 2011 a family trip to see Santa Claus in Rovaniemi, Finland.  Then in 2012 we went on several more trips taking full advantage of the convenience of living in Europe.  Trips included a beautiful "kids-free" weekend getaway to Paris, France in the Spring.  Later when the summer finally arrived, trips included St. Petersburg, Russia, Sweden, Norway and Barcelona, Spain.   I have stated in my blog before, even though it has been a wonderful and rewarding year in Finland, it is nice to take advantage of the convenient flights and go on some adventures elsewhere.   I hope to continue to be able to see more of Europe and the world using Helsinki as a base.  

The summer, even though a bit cooler than previous Finnish summers, (so I was told by many people) was still magical.  People were relaxed and the downtown work life was much slower than normal.  The BBQs started to pop up and everyone just had a better outlook on life it seemed. I even recall one night riding my mountain bike home at 3:00am and it was kind of bright outside because of the midnight sun and while riding through the forest,  I had  reached a total peace of mind.  The summers are great, just wish they were a bit longer and less wet. It seems that when August rolls around people are already talking about autumn season.  In California, August and September are clearly summer months and October kicks off the autumn season.  I am keeping my fingers crossed because it looks like the summer has returned to Finland during this mid-August week.

The past year has been a transition from working for a US based corporate company to working for a Finnish start up company.  I have been very enthused about the opportunity to work for a Finnish company, because I think to fully absorb and integrate into the society it is better to work for a local company.  I am still learning how the Finns do things and there are some slight cultural nuances that are different in Finnish leadership and management style.   I am here to observe and learn from the differences, not complain about them.  Though I do feel that it does definitely take a long time to gain full trust from a Finn,  once that trust is gained, you will probably have a friend for life (so they say).  That applies to co-workers and friends.

I have already written many entries in my blog about the differences between living in the United States versus living in Finland.   Of course there is no perfect society and I have some complaints about how Finns do things and how they never seem to want to bend rules, but I also respect their policies and the secure and safe society.  The key to learning to live in a new country is to acknowledge the differences and accept them for what they are.  Basically, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.  You should never move to a foreign country and live inside a little "bubble".  Try to practice the local customs, get involved, and try your best to assimilate into the society.  Even learn the language if you feel it is necessary, but good luck with that if you live in Finland.  :)   The first year in Finland has been highly rewarding, I have no regrets and can only hope the next year abroad goes as well as the last.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Sun seeking in Spain and the Costa Brava

La Sagrada Familia Cathedral Barcelona
The final leg of our summer travels had our family journeying off to Spain to enjoy the sunshine in Barcelona and the Costa Brava.  We visited my wife's law school friend who is a native Catalan and currently lives in Barcelona and has a summer house on the Costa Brava.   The Catalans are very proud of their heritage and wish to become a sovereign nation as they once were 300 years ago. The heat and humidity hit us like a great wall of steam as we left the airport and headed by taxi to the apartment we were renting in the Gracia neighborhood.  This wonderful neighborhood was not located in the city center, but was very charming and full of lively squares and unique shops.  In my opinion, there is no better way to get the feeling of a city then staying near the locals in a residential neighborhood versus the standard downtown tourist centric area.

Casa Batllo by Gaudi in Barcelona

Barcelona is quite large in my opinion and there are many interesting sights to see.  However, in addition to all the wonderful sights and sounds of Barcelona, there is the amazing food. And if you are coming from Scandinavia like me, then you can appreciate all the assortments of tapas, paella, seafood and other culinary treats from this area.  This area of Catalonia is especially renowned for their chefs and Catalan cooking.  During our 4 day stay in the area we feasted on much of the food I mentioned and usually washed it down with a 3 euro glass of Spanish wine.  Yes, that is correct, you can get a glass of wine in a restaurant for 3 euros in Spain, which is about the same cost as a glass of juice.  In Finland you are lucky to be able to get a glass of wine on the menu for less than 10 Euros.  Several mornings jogs up the hill from our neighborhood to Parc Guell helped me burn off the meals and make room for more Catalan gastranomic treats.

Dali Museum in Figueres, Costa Brava

The top tourist areas in Barcelona are the church La Sagrada Famila, Gaudi's famous architectural buildings which include Parc Guelll and Casa Battlo, and the Ramblas and Gothic Quarters.  This is just a few of the main highlights as there is much to see in this great city.  It is hard for me to admit, but we actually paid for one of those double decker tour buses and zoomed around the city soaking in the sun and the sights.  I am not one to typically pay for a tourist bus, however with 2 kids in tow, this seemed like a reasonable option.  The subway is actually very good in Barcelona as well, so we also used it for many of our longer destinations.  We really enjoyed all that Barcelona offered, but suffered a bit in the heat and humidity.  Even though I am a native of California, having lived in Finland for the last year means that I have adjusted to cooler weather patterns.  Barcelona is an amazing city in many ways and I would highly recommend a visit, but think twice if coming in the middle of the summer.  It is hot, extremely popular, crowded and you might be fighting your way through the tourist center.

So, after 4 days in sunny Barcelona, we made the journey via rental car to the Costa Brava.  We drove to the idyllic seaside village of Llanca while stopping at Figueres en route.  Figueres was Salvador Dali's home city and prominently features the Dali museum.  It actually seems that Figueres has built tourism around the Dali museum, which dominates several blocks of the downtown.  We have always been fascinated by Dali's work and thought since we were passing through that this would be a perfect opportunity to see the museum.  We waited in line for over 30 minutes just to get in the door to this extremely popular museum.  Once inside were delighted by his extraordinary collection of paintings, drawings and other bits and pieces.  Dali was the ultimate surrealist artist in my opinion.  Then after a few hours we ventured back to the road that would eventually land us in the coastal city of Llanca.  Llanca is our Catalan host Eva's summer home and they have a very large castle like summer house that has passed many generations in her family.   This was the most amazing building that I have ever stayed in and the construction dated back approximately 1,000 years.  You could almost feel the spirits roaming around as you passed through each room in this amazing building.  The "guest home" portion of the building had a kitchen, family room and 3 bedrooms and the main section was about twice as large.  Downstairs in the courtyard featured an old and very deep water well and also an ancient dungeon.  The dungeon door was an original with old but thick wood and iron bars to keep it shut.  When Eva opened the door for us, you could actually see the scratch marks from former prisoners kept there during the 14 century.  Very cool and a bit spooky at the same time.  I felt as if I was in a time warp as Eva gave us a tour of the entire place.  Every nook and cranny of the building had something unique and interesting to offer dating back into the Middle Ages.

Hilltop castle in Costa Brava -similar construction to Eva's home

In addition to staying at her summer home, we explored the coast a bit which included a death defying drive up the coastal mountains to an old castle that Eva claims is built by the same folks who created her family's summer home.  We also spent a half day at the beach soaking in the rays and the children loved exploring the sea life which included sea urchins and octopus.  Everything about the Costa Brava and the cute villages were just amazing.  You here stories about many sun seekers from Northern Europe going down to the Costa Del Sol for vacation, but I think they have overlooked this gem of a place.  I absolutely loved Catalonia and the Costa Brava and would return in a heartbeat.  Living in Finland is nice, but an escape to the amazing Costa Brava should rank high on everyone's European wish list.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Norway adventure

The 2nd leg of our summer travels started with a trip to Norway via boat and ferry.  I have always wanted to visit Norway and now that we are living in Finland, we finally decided to take the family via the ferry from Helsinki.   I have a good American friend who married a Norwegian man and they have been raising their family in Norway for the last decade.  We took the car on the ferry that left from Helsinki to Stockholm, Sweden.  The route was to drive across Sweden to their city just South of Oslo.  It took about 7 hours to navigate across the heart of Sweden before finally crossing the border into Norway.  We have never driven across Sweden before and to be honest it isn't all that exciting, but easy driving.  It is a mix of farms, forests and some large lakes and is pretty much flat the entire way. Once the border of Norway is reached, the mountains and hills seem to pop out from nowhere.  Norway is definitely a geographically diverse country and has a great mix of mountains, sea and forests.

That night, after the long drive we finally reached our friend's home in Asgardstrand which is a small village about 1 hour south of Oslo.  We actually had to take the car ferry across the bay to get to their home city and that 30 minute ferry ride cost approximately 35 Euros.  Welcome to Norway, probably the most expensive country in Europe.  We actually ate out a few times and I won't even mention in this blog the prices, because they were exorbitantly high.  Their little town was very picturesque and located right on the water.  This small village is also home to Edvard Munch who is famous for "The Scream" painting.  During our stay, our host treated the children to several boat rides in the harbor with his little speed boat.  My daughter had a complete blast driving and gassing the boat.  He also took us to a tiny island where we docked and then jumped off the boat and let the children climb up the little lighthouse.

After two nights at their home, we traveled up north to visit some of the famous fjords.  We made the 5 hour ride to Flam, which is famous for the Flam train ride.  Several times during our drive we were stopped in the road by sheep just hanging out.  It made the Netflix series "Lilyhammer" (based on Lilehammer, Norway) seem more realistic as once the main character Steven Van Zandt had to stop his car in the middle of the road to let sheep cross. This railroad takes you on an hour journey past many wonderful waterfalls, streams and other marvels of nature.  We really enjoyed the journey in this famous train which supposedly at one point climbs up to a 55% gradient, however it didn't really feel that steep.  We spent one night in Flam and the next morning, I made a quick solo hike up towards one of the numerous waterfalls.  The views were just amazing every way you looked.  A bit later we said good bye to Flam and made the journey back to Sweden via Oslo.  During the drive back we passed many mountain tunnels, including a killer 24.5 kilometer tunnel (Lardal tunnel)!  Yes, that is right, over 24 kilometers of tunnel in a car, enough to make one claustrophobic since it took approximately 20 minutes or so to get through.  It is known as the longest road tunnel in the world according to Wiki.

We reached Oslo that afternoon and parked the car to walk around the capital.  We went to their new Opera house, which features a roof that is very interesting and quite large.  The children had a great time walking all around the roof.  The roof had great views of the city and harbor.  I was pleasantly surprised by the ethnic diversity in Oslo.  They seem to have a more diverse population than Helsinki.  We had lunch in Oslo at a restaurant which was extremely expensive, continuing the high cost theme in Norway.  Soon enough we were ready to make the journey back to Stockholm in order to get back to our ferry with the car.  Since the drive from Flam all the way to Stockholm was approximately 10 hours, we decided to break the drive into 2 days. We drove about half way through Sweden to a city called Karlstad which is situated right on the large Lake Vanern.  We spent the night at the hotel before making the final 3.5 hour drive to Stockholm.  Since my father had never visited Stockholm before, we decided to drop my parents off in the Gamla Stan (old town) while the family visited the Vasa War ship museum.  The children had a nice time walking around this museum and it was our 3rd trip there.  This museum which features a perfectly preserved 17th century ship should not be missed when in Stockholm.  Finally, in the afternoon we picked up my parents and headed back to the ferry for the trip back to Helsinki.  Even though we drove approximately 2,000 kilometers during the 6 day trip, we really enjoyed the journey, visiting good friends and taking in the scenic beauty of Norway.  

Friday, July 13, 2012

St. Petersburg weekend escape

 My parents have been visiting Finland these last few weeks and we had also planned to make the train trip from Helsinki to St. Petersburg.  We road the fancy Finnish "Allegro" train which has been in service for a year or so now, and makes the journey all the way to St. Petersburg in a quick 3.5 hours.  So, after filling out our Visa application and coughing up approximately 120 euros per person, we were ready to make the trip.  A post Soviet world doesn't mean that politics are thrown out the window, because they are charging Americans more than 3x what they charge Finns for their Visa!  Finns can make the trip on a mere 35 euro Visa.  I cry not fair!   But what to do, just suck it and try to not be an ugly American.  :)

The train left on the exact minute it was supposed to leave and we zoomed off on our first Russian adventure.  The ride was smooth, seats were spacious and it was relaxing.  The only real hassle starts when you arrive at the Russian border and the customs and passport control start coming around and asking questions.  In my best impression of an American trying to speak a foreign  language, I gave a polite Russian dobryi den "good afternoon" and then spasibo "thank you".  I actually got the Passport controller to speak Russian to me exclusively, so I felt proud.  :)  Finally, we arrived at the Finlandskiy station in Peter.  Anxious anticipation overcame our family as we stepped off our train and spotted a sign that would be our race car driver, who would drive us to our hotel.   He only spoke a few words of English, so I again did my best impression of Russian for the driver.  He sped off through the outskirts of town and headed toward our hotel which is close to the tourist center.  I cracked a few smiles from the front seat as my parents looked liked they were both about to have a heart attack as the driver floored through town, weaving in and out of traffic.  To me the wild ride so to speak is part of the overall adventure of exploring a foreign land.

After arriving at our hotel, we were soon ready to meet our Russian guide, Ania for a walk around town.  I decided since this was my first trip to Russia and I was with my parents that a guide would smooth things out a bit and help us get oriented with the city.  Ania was peppy and very friendly and soon took us out into the center of the attractions.  We walked by the several bridges connecting the Neva river to both sides of the city and then walked over to the St. Peter and Paul Fortress.  This Fortress had a small church that featured a mausoleum of the past Czars and Czarinas.  I personally am not an expert on Russian royalties, but since my mom was very interested in this history she was rattling off many facts while walked around.  We spotted the tombs of the famous Romanov family, as well as Catherine and Peter the Great.  Since we had a guide for only 4 hours and time was of the essence, we strolled onwards back across the Neva towards the Church of the Spilled Blood.  This Church with the infamous name is probably the only church in St. Petersburg that is in the traditional Russian orthodox style. This style is famous in Moscow and most people know of St. Basil's church.  After that visit, we ventured down to the Nevsky Prospekt via one of the many canals of St. Petersburg.  This is another European city claiming that it is the "Venice of the North".  One of numerous cities making this claim, hoping to get an increase in tourist dollars.  A list that includes Bruges, Belgium and Stockholm, Sweden.   I am not one who gets too impressed with shopping districts, so we all decided to ditch the famous shopping street (Nevsky Prospekt) and headed down an alleyway passage to get to the famous great Senate square.  This square is quite mammoth in size, makes the claim as the largest square in all of Europe.  The guide made that claim, so I guess it is accurate.  The day was winding down now and we were starting to hear a rumble in our tummies.  So, after visiting the famous square we strolled down past the Winter Palace and headed back to Vasilievsky Island were we were staying.  The guide showed us a restaurant that she recommended for dinner.   We didn't eat much Russian food on the trip, but tried the borscht soup at the German restaurant where we dined.

The second day of our adventure meant trips to the famous Hermitage museum and other random strolling around in the city.  We also had the guide for and additional half a day and she made the Hermitage maze easier to navigate.  The Hermitage is known as the second largest museum in the world, next to the Louvre in France.  It supposedly would take about 8 years to see every piece in the museum.  We weren't able to even attempt to see a fraction of the museum, so our guide Ania had a nice plan to see the main highlights in 3 hours time.  It was a nice museum, but very crowded as you can imagine.  Hard to compare it to the Louvre in Paris, but it definitely held it's own.  It even featured painters from the impressionist and post impressionist periods as well as Dutch, Spanish and Italian masters.  The museum itself is housed in the Winter  Palace of the Czars and Czarinas and many rooms were gilded in gold.  All in all, the Hermitage is definitely a must visit for art lovers and Royal family fans.

The afternoon was spent revisiting some of the sights that we saw on Friday with the guide, but didn't have a chance to actually enter.  For example, we went inside 2 churches that the guide just pointed out the day before.  We also strolled a bit down the flashy Nevsky Prospekt shopping street and again I wasn't all that impressed.  I guess fancy shopping just doesn't appeal to me when I am visiting a new city.  I like to get away from commercial aspects and take the time to actually soak in the city and the culture.

The third and final day in St. Petersburg was the journey to the famous Peterhof palace using the speedy hydrofoil.  Peterhof was the summer home to the Royal families.  This is perhaps the best way to get to Peterhof palace, but it is quite expensive compared to other street options.  We actually enjoyed the boat ride over and enjoyed seeing parts of the city away from the tourist center.  We arrived at Peterhof and paid our admission price and then started walking on the massive grounds with the gardens, water fountains, gold statues and buildings.  The shear size of the grounds were quite impressive, but then I started to make comparisons to the Versaille near Paris.  While this palace was quite expansive and serene, it just didn't have the overall charm and pristine gardens of Versaille in Paris.  I later learned that the Russians imported much of the French culture into their palaces.  We covered a decent amount of terrain on our feet but noticed that every building charged an admission fee.  Peterhof is very impressive, but the "nickel and diming" for entry into every single building was a huge letdown.  We decided against entering anything additional for a fee and just took in the peace and solitude of the gardens.  After strolling around for several hours we took the hydrofoil boat back to town and made one last walk around the tourist center before heading back to the hotel for the final time.  We later got our luggage and found our race car driver #2 for a lift back to the train station .  This time we got another Mario Andretti style driver as he floored the gas pedal and raced in and out of traffic making it to our train station in record time.  This had me wondering is it just a coincidence or do drivers in St. Petersburg truly just enjoy this kind of frantic driving?

Back on the train was again a pleasant and hassle free experience.  We arrived back in Finland around 11:00pm and were left with pleasant memories of a special weekend in Russia.  Even as an American who must pay exorbitant amounts for the required Visa, I recommend a visit to St. Petersburg, Russia.  The city was easy to navigate on foot and it felt safe, even safer and friendlier than I had imagined it to be.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Midsummer celebration at Seurasaari Island in Finland

Midsummer's eve is the longest day of the year and one of the most festive Holidays in Finland.  This was going to be my first Midsummer experience in Finland, so I invited some good friends from the United States (currently living in Germany) to take part in the festivities.

Fortunately, it was a gorgeous, sunny day with endless blue skies.  The Finnish weather has been moody these last few weeks and this day was just what the doctor ordered.  We left Espoo around 6pm to head over to Seurasaari Island in Helsinki.  Seurasaari is one of the larger Islands in the Helsinki metro area and the island itself has been converted into some kind of open air museum.  Upon arrival via bus from Espoo, we purchased our tickets, then ventured across the bridge entrance while fighting the growing crowd of Midsummer revelers.    The path from the entrance to the main area was littered with cultural tidbits, arts and crafts.  For example, at one stop you could cut wood with an old saw and at another stop you could walk on wooden stilts or play tug of war.  Many folks were dressed in traditional Finnish gowns while they performed traditional dances on one of the small stages.

Midsummer is perhaps the most special Holiday in Finland, because it kicks off the Summer Holiday season and it is a time of relaxation, parties and reflection.  Not having partaken in any previous Midsummer activities, we all decided that Seurasaari, although touristy might be a good place to experience our first Midsummer.  The main attraction of the celebration is the lighting of the bonfires.  Not having anything to compare the experience with, I was kind of expecting some mammoth "Burning Man" style bonfire.  However, in reality there were about 5 smaller bonfires waiting to be torched.  Each one of these bonfires varied in style and design.  They had one "Estonian" style, one "Ingrian" style and a few other varieties of bonfires.  Although they were impressive and neat to watch light up, the burning of these didn't evoke feelings of mass euphoria.  I was however caught up in a Zen like moment with friends and family sipping on a few cold ones on a rock overlooking the Bay while the fires were burning.  It was a perfect evening to kick off the start of the summer season and to reflect on life.

We actually left Seurasaari just past 10pm which is quite early for Midsummer events, but with tired children and a 30 minutes bus ride ahead of us, it was probably the right call.  All in all, Midsummer in Seurasaari was a pleasant, though commercial experience.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

What inspires you?

For the last 6 months or so, I have been blogging about my experiences living in Finland as well as comparing life in Europe to what I was used too back in the United States.  I think now is a good time to take a step back and reflect on life and what directs us through each day.  Some of us live life as if we are a rat running around the wheel in a cage and we re-live this same dull day over and over again.   My aim is not just to repeat old cliche's, but I am one who truly believes that every single minute is precious and we have only one chance in life.  So, everyday we must seek and fulfill the passion that drives our desires.  Inspiration can come in many forms and fashions.  It could simply be a pleasant exchange with a stranger or a heated political discussion with a coworker, or just simply pushing your child on a swing in the neighborhood park.  The point is we all need something to motivate and inspire us in life.

Family, friends and co-workers are all important in our daily lives, but to find fulfillment and passion, we need to look deep within ourselves.  We need to analyze and seek out the items in our lives that we are passionate about.  Maybe you are driven by your work and it stokes your internal flames, or maybe you enjoy painting art, or perhaps even rock climbing.  Everyone has their own favorites hobbies and interests.  The hard part is taking the time and effort to keep your passions alive and well.  The fact is that they can only be kept relevant through continuous drive, desire and determination.  This is your life, the time is now, get out and live your dreams.

Those reading this blog entry, I ask you to leave me comments on what inspires, drives and motivates you in your daily lives.  Hope to hear from you.

Dream as if you'll live forever.  Live as if you'll die today.  ~James Dean

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Moody Finnish weather

My intention is not to go on a negative rant about Finnish weather, but sometimes it cannot be avoided.  :)  We just hit the month of June and in Finland you would have thought it was the middle of Winter minus the snow.  A storm came to town for the first weekend in June and just in time for Graduation ceremonies which are occurring all over Finland this weekend.  Non stop rain overnight left swollen gutters and nasty surprises for those early morning drivers.  I know that the weather is not always perfect in Finland,  but they have had their share of warm summers, and Summer rain normally just means a small passing shower.  This weekend's storm caught me off guard to say the least.  Looking on the bright side, Finland which is about the same latitude as Alaska, is spared the very harsh weather by having the Gulf Stream warm up the air.  If it wasn't for the generous Gulf Stream, Finland's climate would be way less desirable.

Last weekend I did the Tour d' Espoo bike ride.  This 110 kilometer bike ride (cycling) featured nice views of the Baltic Ocean as well as scenic countryside and many lakes. The weather for this ride was just what the doctor ordered.  It was about 73 degrees and sunny, and I even got sunburned!  It was a really neat way to tour Espoo via bike.  Espoo is one of the largest cities in Finland in both size and population, but since Finland is so sparsely populated, even Espoo has it's share of open countryside and farms.

Anyhow, being a spoiled Californian, I could easily predict the Summer weather and seasons.  We barely had a drop of rain during the Summer and you could pretty much plan on having nice weather from early May through October without fail.  There are even streaks of warm (20 celsius or more) weather during February and March where I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area.  I knew coming to Finland that I would have to make some sacrifices on the weather front.  They say that you can get used to things, but after 40 years of living in California, the adjustment has not always been easy.  So, when you decide to visit Finland, just remember that the weather is a bit of  "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde".  It can be restrictive at times, but with a good attitude, you should do just fine.  :)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Time off, Finnish style

In Finland and most of Europe, people know what it means to really take time off.  Time spent away from the office relaxing with family and friends is highly regarded in Finland.   With summer vacations approaching soon, people are starting to get excited about their longest stretch of time without work.  In Finland, since the summers are precious and short, most people take off several weeks in July.  I don't just mean 1 or 2 weeks off, but 3, 4 or even 5 weeks in a row.  Finns know what it means to truly relax from the stresses of the workplace and recharge their batteries.  Some spend 2 weeks traveling, then 1 week relaxing at a summer cottage, then an additional week just to recover from their vacation.  The goal is to totally decompress and get work out of the mind and the system.  Having worked in the US for most of my career, I recall struggling just to reserve 2 or 2 1/2 weeks off without interrupting the work schedules.  If I wanted to take off more than 2 weeks in a row, I needed upper management to sign off on my vacation request.  US bosses always say to take your vacations, but when it comes down to it, they care more concerned about keeping the business running like a well oiled machine.  In Finland, almost all businesses completely shut down during the month of July, so managers are not running around with decreased staff trying to keep the business at full speed, but they actually relax and take the time off themselves.  It makes sense since the summers are short and precious, people should not be wasting them in the office.

Most US companies start with 2 weeks of vacation and increase to 3 or even 4 weeks when employees reach a certain level of seniority.  In Finland, most companies start with 5 weeks, however many other Holidays and  extra days off can taken during the year.   I was lucky enough to have 4 weeks of vacation in my last US company, however that was kind of exceptional. Good luck if I was ever going to get off 4 weeks off in a row.  I normally took off 2 weeks during the summer and spread the other vacation days around throughout the year.  It will be nice talking off long stretches during the summer now and feeling guilt free about it.  I am truly looking forward to vacations, Finnish style.

Monday, May 7, 2012

So you want to learn Finnish?

There is one topic I have avoided writing about in my blog. That would be in regards to my painful struggle with the Finnish language.  In the past I have always considered myself to be engaged and truly interested in learning foreign languages. However,  Americans like myself are a bit crippled in this respect and the majority of the US populous are monoglots.  Language learning just isn't supported in the United States the same way it is in Scandinavia and Europe.  We are not required to take languages in school and usually don't even start to learn them until High School (which is much too late).

Excuses aside, Finnish truly is a difficult language to learn, and some say it is one of the most difficult in all of Europe if not the entire world.  You might think why is Finnish any more difficult than most European languages?  First of all, Finnish doesn't belong to the same language tree as the other Germanic Scandinavian languages and it isn't really related to any other languages.  Finnish belongs to the Finno-Ugric language tree.  In fact the only other major languages in the Finno-Ugric tree are Estonian and Hungarian.  So, it is a truly unique language.   What makes it super difficult for Americans and other native English speakers without language backgrounds is the fact that the pronunciation is so difficult and there are so many different cases.  The Finnish alphabet uses a few special characters like the ö and the ä.  These have distinctly different sounds from the English o and a.  I won't get too deep into pronunciations, Finnish words, or grammar cases because that would be an entirely different post.  However, I do want to give an example of the twisting of words in Finnish.  For example, in English when you use a noun in a sentence like "glass", the word stays the same.  The spelling of the noun never changes.  However, in Finnish depending on how you use "glass" in the sentence, the word changes.  So if you drink from the glass, throw the glass, break the glass, put the glass on the table, etc.  The word will change in each case and you must remember how to twist the word in all the cases.  This is by no means an easy learning experience. I find it hard enough just to learn all the new verbs and nouns and then having to worry about twisting words up to 15 times is just mind boggling in my opinion.  You throw the difficult pronunciations on top of that and you are in for a very challenging language learning experience.

I had taken some Finnish lessons several years ago before moving to Finland, so I had some knowledge of the language and knew some vocabulary.  Also, now living here for 9 months I have obviously had more exposure to the language.   But, to be totally honest, Finnish is not a language you just pick up while living here.  You don't just string a bunch of words together and speak slowly in Finnish, you pretty much either know Finnish or you don't.  There really isn't much in between, because if you attempt to speak Finnish and you can't be understood by the locals, in 95% of the cases, you will get English spoken back to you.  Their command of the English language is very impressive to say the least.    It is very frustrating knowing how many Finns can speak perfect English, when I am in their country and can barely string 2 Finnish sentences together and make sense of it.   The Finnish language has been compared to a triangle, where one must learn the most difficult and challenging part at the base and then work their way up to the top of the triangle where mastery takes place.  The bottom of the triangle or base is very difficult and takes a long time to master, however once the rules are learned, the learning curve gets easier. Where in English, the language has been compared to an upside down triangle where the rules of learning in the beginning are easier and one can learn to speak basic English fairly fast.  However, as they climb up the triangle, the challenges grow with the different rules of English words and tenses.  So, basically what I am trying to say is that Finnish is extremely challenging in the beginning and English not so much, but in the long term Finnish gets easier where English can get more difficult.  It is a combination of the initial difficulties and complexities of Finnish combined with the fact that so many speak English which makes learning Finnish a difficult but not impossible proposition for any expat living in the Helsinki area.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Summer dreaming

The sun is starting to shine again in Finland.  As the barometer rises, the days are lasting longer and the smiles are returning to people's faces.  :)  Actually, it's no joke, now that the daylight is lasting past 9pm and the warmth is returning,  I am really noticing a change in my daily interactions with people.  We have lived in Finland now for 9 months and have only met a few of our neighbors.  Now, just in the last couple weeks a few families have stopped by to say  "hello".  Many Finns are an introverted  for let's say 8 months out of the year, but when the sun shines bright, they seem to awaken from their winter slumber and will surprise you with a smile or a "hi".  Nothing like the assistance of long, bright days to bring them out of their shells.

I am starting to get excited by the prospects of the Finnish summer.  I have been teased by a few weeks of Finnish summers while on vacation in the past, but never actually spent an entire summer residing here.  In addition to seeing smiling faces again, the summer terrace culture is kick starting soon.  People tend to avoid most indoor activities and soak in the sun rays at the city's many bar terraces and parks.  They truly relish the short summer season and supposedly frequent the terraces multiple times per week.  In other words, they truly take advantage of the small window of time that is the magic of the Finnish summer.  I for one, having been spoiled by Californian sunshine have taken advantage of every Spring day here where the clouds decide to go on strike and allow the sun to beam bright. It is already light till past 9pm and we are still in April.  Once late June rolls around we will have a few weeks of endless sunlight.  These endless nights are also known as the "White Nights" or "Midnight Sun".

After having completed my first winter in Finland and seeing the weather slowly evolve, I can now truly appreciate the sun I perhaps took for granted in California and now have some insights into the psyche of the Finnish persona and how they truly come back to life like a bear that just woke up from his long winter's nap.

Here's to summer 2012 in Finland and everywhere else in the world, may it be the longest, most magical, summer ever.

There shall be eternal summer in the grateful heart.  ~Celia Thaxter

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Finnish Easter Experience

Easter (Pääsiäinen) in Finland is a distinctly different experience than what is celebrated in the United States.  The Palm Sunday before Easter the kids dress up like witches and go door to door collecting sweets.   Reminiscent of the trick-or-treat tradition in the British Isles and North America, this practice is believed to be a mixture of Orthodox Easter blessing customs from Eastern Finland with pre-Christian rituals from Western Finland and Scandinavia.  The kids must recite a rhyme in Finnish and they exchange a decorated branch before receiving their treats.  The Finnish rhyme is: Virvon varvon, tuoreeks terveeks, tulevaks vuueks, ison talon isännäks. Vitsa sulle, palkka mulle.

I really enjoy the long Holiday weekends in Finland and Easter is no exception.  Both Friday and Monday are official Holidays, making Easter a 4-day weekend in Finland.  In the United States some people get "Good Friday" off while others just have a normal 2-day weekend.   In Finland, most of the businesses shut down on the long weekend (with exception to Saturday) so many people leave town for vacation.  In Finland most people already get 5-6 weeks of vacation, so these long weekends are a nice addition to the already generous time off policies.  Many folks I had spoken to decided to go downhill skiing in Northern Finland and there is usually still plenty of snow up there at this time of year. 

In addition to eggs and chocolate sweets, traditional Finnish Easter dishes include Ham, Lamb and Mämmi.  Mämmi, a distinctively Finnish desert dish is made from water, rye flour, and powdered rye malt, seasoned with dark molasses, salt, and dried powdered Seville orange peel.  Some are afraid to eat Finnish Mämmi because of it's consistency and dark brown appearance.  It really isn't that scary and besides being kind of thick and filling, doesn't taste all that bad.  It is traditionally eaten with cream and sugar.  Give it a try if you are ever visiting Finland during Easter time.

It recently got a bit colder and snowed a little bit on Palm Sunday and remained cool (25-38 F) during the entire week leading up to Easter.  The Finns said that these brief returns to Winter during Spring are common, and they call them "Takaisin Talvi" or "Back Winter".  Old Man Winter may have reared his ugly head again and placed Spring on hold, but the days are longer, the sun is out and the snow has almost all melted.  You can definitely feel Spring in the air, and now I am just waiting for the warmer barometer to stay longer.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Parisian Interlude

Iconic bookstore

While I have enjoyed living abroad in Finland, sometimes one has a need to escape the country and go on a little adventure.  Luckily, living in Finland has the benefit of being a 1-4 hour plane ride from just about every country in Europe.  Direct flights and minimal time changes mean that you can be up and running in your destination city in a few hours.

Louvre Museum
We are lucky enough to have friends living in Paris for one year, so we were able to stay with them for a long weekend.   Their apartment was perfectly located in the left bank's 6th arrondissement.  You couldn't ask for a better location that is central to many of Paris's cultural highlights.  They live just a 5 minute walk to the Notre Dame cathedral and a 15 minute walk to either the Louvre or Orsay museums.   Ernest Hemingway once said (after living in Paris in his 20s) that Paris is a moveable feast and I couldn't agree more.  It doesn't really matter which direction you walk, you will find something interesting on every street corner.  Compared to compact Helsinki, Paris is quite an enormous city and consists of 20 arrondissements (sections).  The sections are by no means small, you can walk for 10 minutes and still be in the same arrondissement.  During our stay in Paris, we focused on the 6th and 7th arondissments.  On the first day we practically raced through the Louvre which features famous pieces such as the  "Mona Lisa" or the "Venus De Milo".  Later in the day we walked over to the Eiffel Tower and had a small picnic while gazing at this famous landmark.  On the way back from the Eiffel Tower we stopped by the Rodin museum, which features his famous "Thinker" sculpture.  The day was topped off with a perfect dinner with our friends in the Latin Quarter.  

Rodin's "The Thinker"
On the second day we continued our adventures by heading over to what is arguably Paris's second most famous museum, The Orsay.  Ironically, one of the featured exhibits in the Orsay was a Finnish artist named Akseli Gallen-Kallela who's work is considered very important to the Finnish identity.  So, we traveled from Finland to one of the most famous museums in Paris to see a Finnish artist.  :)  However, in my opinion the highlights of the Orsay were the French Impressionist painters, which include Monet and Manet, not to mention many works by Van Gogh.  Later in the day we meandered across the Seine to an almost equally famous museum called the Orangerie which features Monet's enormous Water lilies paintings.  By this time I think we were going through slight museum burnout as our brains could barely process all the pieces we saw in 2 days.

Unlike Finland, people in Paris are not so eager to speak to you in English, so knowledge of basic French is a big plus.  My French is really bad, but I still attempted a few conversational polite words.  In Finland, unless you speak perfect Finnish, you will most likely get English spoken back to you from the beginning.  This is likely not the case in France where they expect you to try to speak French, and if you do, they will be more willing to try speaking English back.

With it's great museums, amazing architecture, famous cathedrals and other distinct monuments, I cannot think of a better place to escape the reality of your every day life and and enjoy a feast for all the senses.  Paris is really an amazing city that has thrilled people for decades and will most likely keep it's stature as one of the greatest cities in the world for a long time to come.

P.S. - My top three movies featuring Paris as a backdrop are 1) Midnight in Paris (2011), 2) Before Sunset (2004) and 3) Paris, je t'aime (2006)