Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year!



I would like to wish everyone a Happy New Year and wonderful 2014.  The Finns says "Hyvää uutta voutta"!  New Year's Eve is a bit different from Christmas in Finland.  Seems that Christmas is a very peaceful family Holiday where no one appears to run around to multiple gathering, but stays local with the family. I was told that on New Year's Eve in Finland, from the time the sun goes down till midnight, fireworks become legal.  Since moving to Finland we have practiced a family tradition where we light off fireworks from our front yard. There are no legal problems doing this and police do not interfere on this night.  We light actual rockets, streamers and ground sparklers.  The kids are always excited for this and it reminds me of my childhood back in the States when we had fireworks on the 4th of July celebration.  However, I think in most places in the States, the use of fireworks is not always permitted, maybe just restricted to certain areas and types of fireworks.  It is interesting how many families in the small neighborhoods in Finland take part in the New Year's fireworks.  I think the cacophony from the fireworks last year began around 8pm and didn't let up till past midnight in our little neighborhood in Espoo.  This seems to be the general theme around the country.

There is still a distinct lack of snow on the ground here in Southern Finland and also no signs of the first major snow storm.  Most people have expected the snow to fall by this time of year; however it just hasn't been cold enough. The last week or so we have had about 5C (41F).  The snow is actually welcomed this time of year since it brightens up things nicely in the dark and allows for snow activities.  The days are still very short now and will be until early February when it starts to get noticeably lighter with each day.  The sun rises about 9:15am now and sets at 3:22pm.  However short and dark the days might be at this moment, staying positive and knowing that it will eventually change helps one get through the dark, dog days of winter in Finland.

As another year races by I have much to be thankful for and reflect on. 2013 was another busy year filled with fun, work, adventure, traveling and learning.  Our family hasn't let go of the travel bug as we plan on visiting several more countries in Europe this coming year, 2014. Whether you live in Finland, The United States or any other place in the world, I appreciate the fact that you stopped by my blog and I hope you find some of my previous posts interesting.  As always, I appreciate comments on my page and look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Zappa Plays Zappa Plays Helsinki



Frank Zappa was ahead of his time.  He was a musical genius who constantly pushed boundaries and never compromised himself for the status quo.  This eccentric showman would leave behind quite a musical legacy that has proved to be influential among many prominent artists.  Zappa's music is hard to define, but can be characterized as a mix of experimental, progressive, parody, rock, jazz and even blues influences.  He first born son, Dweezil has committed himself to bringing Frank’s music to a younger generation via his Zappa Plays Zappa group.




Zappa Plays Zappa would finish their European tour with a visit to the Kulttuuritalo (Culture house) in Helsinki.  Since all concerts are quite different, my friends and I had no idea what the evening had in store for us.  The venue was a few kilometers from the city center and the capacity seemed to be around 700 people. They kicked off the night with the first set which was done in honor of the 1973 album, "Roxy & Elsewhere".  It was the 40th anniversary of this classic live Zappa album so they would play it from start to finish. The band consisted of a talented female saxophone player, a multi-talented lead singer who also played horns and rhythm guitar (among other things), a talented keyboard player, a talented drummer, an awesome bassist and Dweezil Zappa on lead guitar.  The band played through their Roxy set while taking time between songs to interact and chat with the audience.  At one point Dweezil noticed some children on the shoulders of their parents and asked them to come up and sit on the stage to make things easier for everyone.  This was a very nice gesture from Dweezil and the children seemed to really enjoy coming up on the stage.  Also during the first set, a few folks volunteered to come up on the stage to perform a few small acting sequences with the band.  It was awesome to see this kind of crowd involvement and clowning around during a live concert performance in Finland.  It seemed that everyone was in a good mood and the band was just having a blast.  They definitely didn't seem like artists who just go through the motions in order to make a buck.  They also briefly celebrated the birthday of their bassist by giving him a small "Happy Birthday" cheer.  Everyone was feeling groovy and digging the good old vibes of an old fashioned Zappa concert.  These were true performers and multi-instrumentalists who really enjoy their craft. The first set ended after about 1.5 hours and a small 15 minute intermission would follow. 




Since they already played such a nice first set, I had no idea what to expect from the second set.  I was thinking to myself that just 30-40 more minutes of Zappa hits would probably be plenty of value for the money and conclude this awesome show.  However, little did I know that they would perform another 1.5 hours worth of famous Zappa songs.  While the first set was a nice mixture of songs from the Roxbury album, the second set would be a stampeding tour de force of Zappa classic and instrumental pieces.  This was truly a special set and the fans got more than their money’s worth.   They even played some of my personal favorite Zappa songs which included the "Black Page" parts 1 and 2 and "The Muffin Man".  Frank Zappa was known for his long and creative guitar jams during his live concerts.  Dweezil, while not just copying Frank is one hell of a guitarist himself.  He displayed his guitar chops during many of the songs from the second set which included many killer guitar riffs noticeably on "The Torture Never Stops", "Watermelon in Easter Hay" and "Muffin Man".  It amazed me how relaxed all the band members were while playing through Frank Zappa’s collection of favorites.   Many Zappa songs are incredibly complex and feature many experimental elements and time signature changes.  The band seemed to have no problem recreating Frank’s music and kept smiling the entire night while performing.  Once the clock struck 11:00pm, the band finally completed the gig with a 3rd encore song.  Since the show started just after 7:30pm, the crowd enjoyed over 3 hours of non-stop music and entertainment from Dweezil and his amazing band of  musicians. I have been to many concerts in my lifetime and rarely have seen such a band playing so relaxed and giving the fans every penny during a very lengthy performance.  In summary, Zappa Plays Zappa was definitely one of the highlights of the year’s past concert calendar in Helsinki.   Frank might not have been on the stage, but he was there in spirit and his star will shine brightly on the music scene for long time to come.  Thanks to Dweezil and company for helping to make that happen.


Ryan Brown: Drums,Ben Thomas: Vocals,Scheila Gonzalez: Saxophone, Flute, Keyboards & Vocals,Dweezil Zappa: Guitar,Chris Norton: Keyboard,Kurt Morgan: Bass
Complete set list here:
http://www.setlist.fm/setlist/zappa-plays-zappa/2013/kulttuuritalo-helsinki-finland-2bc430e2.html

All photo credits: Oded Zalmanovitch

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Finnish Diving Clowns



We took out 6 year old son to a circus show last weekend.  When you think of the circus, you probably think of circus tents, clowns, animals, acrobats, perhaps even jugglers.  For me during the last 15 years or so, circus has been defined by catching the highly unique shows known as Cirque du Soleil.  This Finnish show known as Jerobeam places a totally different twist on the circus concept.  This show which consisted of about 15 performers, focuses mainly on pool diving stunts.

All the performers in this show had painted clown faces and they were all highly trained diving/jumping experts.   The show started with a fake lifeguard trying to tie some balloons up near the top of the 7.5 meter diving block and another man coming to help with a ladder before they both plunged into the swimming pool, ladder and all.  From there on out it was a full on assault of clowns doing their best dives, falls and jumps from various different heights of the swimming pool's diving blocks and springboards.  Belly flops, butt flops, head first, back first, you name it, and they probably tried it.  Seems it was likely to hurt these clowns doing belly flops from 7.5 meter blocks, but they got right back on their feet like nothing had happened and clearly had practiced these high jumps many times. 

Throughout the hour plus show they featured many different activities including a pirate battle, lighting a man on fire before plunging into the water, a water skier and having 6 or 7 people diving into the pool at the same time.  These guys seemed fearless and at the top of their game.  One act towards the end really stood out as one of those “only in Finland” type of stunts.   One clown was dressed up in a ghost outfit and only had holes cut out for his eyes so he could see.  Essentially he was just wearing a white sheet.  The “ghost” walked through the crowd, and then climbed up to the top of the highest block.  Then he proceeded to remove his ghost sheet, which now revealed that he was fully naked while he quickly placed his hands over his private parts.  Then just as people realized this, he quickly jumped head first into the water while still holding his private parts and he proceeded to swim across the pool naked to the other side.  As he reached the other side and left the pool, he again covered his privates with his hands and walked quickly to the locker room.   This was the naked clown act known as "nakupelle" in Finnish.  Interesting enough, no one in the audience seemed that shocked and even my wife mentioned that they do this same act with each show.  I can only imagine the horror in the United States when the parents realize what is going on with their kids in the audience.  It would probably make the local evening news.   Don’t forget Janet Jackson’s famous Super Bowl nipple slip created a situation where live TV in the States is now delayed around 7 seconds.   It is just the human body people, relax!  Again it outlines the cultural differences between Europe and the prude United States.  If these things are not made into a “big deal” in the US then they are probably not such a big deal.

I thought the entire show was great fun and my son agreed.  After the show completed some of the performers hung around and my son made his way over promptly so he could shake hands with the clowns.  So, what a better way to cap a Saturday evening than seeing Finnish diving clowns working their magic in the swimming pool.  :)



Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Eternal City

Our children had 3 week days off from school in October for autumn break so we decided to visit Rome, Italy.  I was very psyched to get back to Rome, which I consider one of the greatest cities in Europe and definitely one of my all-time favorites.  Walking around the historic center of Rome feels kind of like walking through a time-capsule that dates back 2,000 or more years.  Not only does Rome feature amazing ancient architecture, but it also showcases masterpieces from the Renaissance period.

Trevi Fountain
We rented a little apartment near the Campo De Fiori square in the historic center of Rome.  I have never been to Rome in October before and was first surprised how warm it still was and secondly how many tourists were there.  My first two visits were in 1993 and in 2000, both during the summer. I remember the city being crowded then, but that was the summer. I expected October to be a bit more mellow, but judging by the crowds it seemed as if it was still the high season.  Campo De Fiori square is situated very close to the Tiber river across the bridge from trendy Trastevere neighborhood and also a short walk from the touristic Piazza Navona.  The first day was spent just getting orientated with our new surroundings and then eating some nice pizza and gelato.  It seems that every day we ate well, indulging on thin crust pizza, nice pastas and other Italian specialties.



Day 2 was spent taking a nice tour of the Colosseum, Palatine hill and Roman Forum.  We entered the Colosseum first with the tour guide who nicely explained the history and use of the Colosseum.  It was amazing to think about how much blood was shed during the days of the gladiators and to think how long this structure has existed.  It was my third time visiting this awesome structure but it still felt very interesting and inspirational.  We had another guide during our visit of the Roman Forum who explained the importance of all the buildings around the Palatine hill and Roman Forum.  We learned that back in those days the simple spices of salt and pepper were like gold and were stored in safes.  Having a supply of salt was the key to storing your food back then since there was obviously no refrigeration.

The Colosseum
On day 3 we entered into a different country.  Well, if you consider the tiny Vatican City another country then yes. We followed the Tiber river just 1 mile north from our apartment and ended up smack in the middle of the center of Catholicism.  We soon joined hordes of tourists ready to enter the largest cathedral in the world that is St. Peters in the Vatican City.  It might have been smack in the middle of October, but this is actually still high season in Italy and the line to get in St. Peters was about 45 minutes from the time we arrived.  We walked a bit around and marveled at the grandeur and beauty of this place.  The showcase of St. Peters is the La Pieta sculpture by Michelangelo which is featured just inside the cathedral.  Later my daughter and I decided to climb up the 320 + stairs to the dome at the top of the cathedral.  We raced up the stairs challenging each other to see who could keep the pace longest.  Once we reached the top we were rewarded with some of the best views in the entire city of Rome.  We marveled at the horizon and all the majestic buildings below us.  This was truly a special place to visit and won't soon be forgotten.  Once back down, we rewarded our stair climbing efforts with some tasty Italian gelato and planned our visit to the very popular Vatican Museums. This is another place I have visited in earlier trips to Rome, but it would take a lifetime or more to see all the exhibits.  The main reason most people visit the Vatican Museums is to see the incredible frescoes on the ceiling of Sistine Chapel.  This was Michelangelo's masterpiece and he spent 4 years of sweat and tears completing it.  We trudged through the Vatican taking the shortest path towards the Sistine Chapel but it seemed that everyone else had the same idea and we were following the crowd like sheep being led to the slaughter. We did see some interesting pieces of art and sculptures along the way, but since I was carrying my son most of the way, I really just wanted to get to the Sistine Chapel.  We eventually reached the Chapel and arrived there with a huge group of tourists.  Words cannot really describe this place, one must visit on their own.  I can say this, whether you appreciate art or not you will find the painted ceiling magical beyond words.

St. Peter's basilica Vatican City
On day 4 we would take a bit of a break from the major museums and large groups of tourists.  We walked up past the famous Spanish Steps to the Borghese Park.  The Borghese Park is a large, sprawling park just North of the historic center which features a villa, a famous art gallery and lots of open space for taking a break from the busy city.  We took a brief visit to the famous Borghese gallery, which features work by Raphael and Bernini.  Soon after that we decided to rent a four person bike and pedaled all around the park, which was great fun and the family thoroughly enjoyed the break from the museum lines.  I highly recommend this park which is a nice respite from the busy city.

Early morning job near the Tiber river
Day 5 was our final full day in Rome and we decided to visit the famous underground tunnel burial system known as the Catacombs.  These Catacombs were the burial place for many popes and Christians during the time of Christian persecution from the Romans during the 2nd and 3rd centuries.  It is actually an amazing piece of history that could easily be overlooked when visiting Rome. Just when you thought you had seen all that Rome has to offer, there is always something else lurking around the corner.  These Catacombs are a bit out of the way for many people so they must be visited either by city bus down the famous Via Appia Antica or by a tour bus.  We decided to take a regular city bus which took around 45 minutes from the center.  The Appian way is one of the most famous roads in Italy, if not all of Europe. It is the main road which took people, including Roman soldiers, back to Rome after their conquests.  It is still a very neat looking road, mainly of cobblestone. The San Callisto catacomb we visited was 4 levels deep (20 meters total) and 20 kilometers of total space.  So, as you can imagine the underground system was immense and buried a total of approx. 500,000 people.  The tour guide, who was a visiting priest from India, took us below and we walked around a small portion of the vast system.  He took us to the famous crypt of Popes, where St. Callisto himself was beheaded by the Romans. Another day in Rome and another amazing piece of very old history.

Near the
 Catacombs and Appian way
The eternal city is an amazing place to visit and probably one of my favorite cities in all of Europe.  There is so much to see and do for just about everyone.  It is a city of arts, ancient history, food and so much more.  However as much as we enjoyed Rome, I would probably not take young children there for more than a few days.  While it is a great city, it is not loaded with many children's activities besides eating pizza and gelato.  :)  With that said, I have no regrets and thoroughly enjoyed this visit.  Since I threw a coin into the Trevi fountain, I will definitely be coming back to Rome again.  


Sunday, September 15, 2013

An American expat living in Finland for 2 years now

It has now been just over two years since I moved with my family to Finland from the United States.  This two year milestone is a good time to reflect on my experiences as an expat and hopefully learn from them and continue on with my voyage.  I thank you for taking the time to read my blog and I hope it is something that you enjoy and can learn from as well.  I hope that in my writing I never come off as arrogant or self-absorbed because that is not my intention.  Yes, I know this blog is mainly about my personal experiences living abroad but since I have a larger audience now, I would hope people reading it like yourself enjoy my ramblings and perhaps gain some insights as well.  I think it could be especially useful for someone wondering or perhaps considering to make a move abroad.

Time really does fly and before you know it the children are growing up and the years are passing you by.  So much happened during my second year living abroad in Finland. At this time last year, we purchased a home in Espoo and that experience in itself was quite scary, but we survived.  Buying a home in a foreign country can be daunting, but once we figured out the rules and got through the red tape, it wasn't such a bad experience.  Fortunately the interest rates in Finland are at rock bottom now, so it makes perfect sense to buy instead of renting even if only for a few years.  Life went on as usual, my children kept busy with their school and sports activities, I remained working for the same start-up in downtown Helsinki and we went on several trips and adventures. I was also able to see some amazing artists live in Helsinki, including Steve Vai, Paul Gilbert, Omar Rodriquez-Lopez, Rush, Kiss and The Smashing Pumpkins.

 Last winter (2012-2013) was long and cold, but we were able to enjoy winter sports and other winter activities. But like all things in life, the winter came to and end, so it wasn't so bad. This last summer was fairly dry and warm and was probably one of the best in Finland in a long time.  The seasons change and everything seems to balance itself out.  Life is fairly normal now, we know more people in the neighborhood and in the school network and we are familiar with most of the local shops and know how to get from place to place without much hassle.

I have learned so much from living abroad and I am still learning more almost everyday.  It is always eye-opening to see how things are done in a culture and country other than you own.  Sometimes you are shocked and others times awed by the little things that you are not used to, but each day you learn and grow.  I am starting to crack the code of Finnish society, but it definitely takes some time and effort.  Finns are not going to become your best friends overnight, there is trust and patience involved.  I have learned much about the Finnish workplace and the value of time off.  I have learned how people here have a greater separation between work and personal life.  I have learned how folks are more efficient with space and how they recycle more.  I have experienced the silence on buses and the peaceful walks through the endless forests.  Of course, learning and experiencing should never stop as it keeps one's inner fire burning.  I think what I have learned this far in life through my travels and living abroad is that we should always keep our minds and hearts open, we should never stop learning and experiencing and try our best to avoid stagnating.  Of course it is easier said than done, but let's not forget that we only have one life and it is short so why not try to live it to the fullest?  

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Summer Vacation Part 3 (California and Finland)

The 3rd and final leg of my summer holiday started the same day I returned from Greece.  We arrived back to Helsinki at 3 am and I grabbed a few hours of sleep before jumping back on a plane heading towards Los Angeles.  This part of the trip involved some business in Los Angeles and Las Vegas for my employer, followed by a quick visit home to the San Francisco Bay Area.   I was excited again to return to my home state, even though I needed to work during the first part of the week.

Misson Inn, Riverside, Ca
No need to get into details of the business portion of the trip, however I was quite amazed at the hotel that I stayed at while in Riverside, California.  I stayed at the historic Mission Inn hotel which made my stay feel a bit more like a vacation than a business trip.  The Mission Inn was built in the Spanish Mission style just over a 100 years ago and has been visited by many famous dignitaries and important folks through out its history. Albert Einstein, Emelia Earhart, Teddy Roosevelt among many presidents stayed here.  Ronald and Nancy Reagan had their honeymoon there as well. The hotel was palatial and in addition to the interesting Spanish style architecture, it had 2 bars, 4 restaurants, a swimming pool and various staircases, nooks, crannies and meeting rooms.  It is definitely one of the most impressive hotels I have ever stayed at and for $125 per night for a large room (about 95€), it was an absolute steal from what I am used to in Europe.  So, in between work sessions I was able to indulge in awesome food and swim a bit in the pool and soak in some California sun.

Grand staircase, Mission Inn
At the end of the week, I drove over to Venice beach from Riverside, strategically trying to get on the freeways during light commute hours, which is almost impossible in Los Angeles.  The traffic in Los Angeles and its surrounding areas is an absolute nightmare and even worse for someone coming from calm and efficient Finland.  However, with that said I made decent time from Riverside to Venice beach.  I hadn't been down to the famous Venice beach area since I was a small child and I had no idea of the motley characters that now call it home.  There is the famous Muscle beach which was a showcase to the muscled celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Joe Weider among others.  As I walked down the beachfront, I noticed jugglers, entertainers, freaks, a man playing guitar on skates, various merchants, aggressive dudes trying to sell their new rap CD's, among other characters.  It reminded me a bit of the old Telegraph Avenue area in Berkeley as a beach community in Los Angeles.  A lunch near the water, hanging out a bit near the beach and strolling down the beach front and I was ready to go back to the airport and head back home (San Francisco, CA).  I always enjoy a trip back home to relax and catch up a bit with family and friends.  However, as always time seems to fly and my short stay at home was over and I was again at the airport and boarding an airplane back to Helsinki.

The Saimaa
My wife already had plans to visit her grandmother who lives in the North Karelia area of Finland and driving there takes around 4 hours from Helsinki/Espoo.  I have been to this area several times in the past and have always enjoyed it.  The drive takes you directly through the Finnish lake land region which features the great Saimaa lake among other natural sites.  We would spend an afternoon visiting her grandmother before driving over to a campground in the Punkaharju ridge area.  This gorgeous area features views of the Saimaa and a drive across a high ridge that splits one of the lakes in half.  This was our first camping experience in Finland and it was nice, the facilities had everything one could ask for including clean showers, restaurants and activities.  The next day we visited the famous city of Savonlinna which features the best preserved castle in all of Finland as well as a lively market at the lakefront.  It was another beautiful, sunny day in Finland to stroll around, take in some views and enjoy our surroundings.  The long drive back home included passing through the center of the Saimaa and stopping for lunch in the lake port city of Puumala.  Puumala is a neat little city that is right in the heart of the lake region and features a nice harbor for the boats that seem to come and go all day long.  Then we continued the journey through the lake region taking in the views along the way and then back home to Espoo.  It was the wonderful end to a long summer Holiday. I can say that this summer was definitely one of the most memorable in a long time and the weather in Finland cooperated.

Punkaharju ridge

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Summer vacation part 2 (Greece)

After the first portion of our summer vacation we spent a few nice sunny days in Finland with a few of my cousins from the United States and later got ready for the main highlight of the summer, a trip to the Island of Crete.  Greece had been on my wish list for many, many years and for some reason we had never made it down there.  There are so many possibilities in Greece and various Islands to explore, it was overwhelming just trying to decide on the best itinerary for a one week trip.  After doing our research on the Greek mainland and many of the Islands, we decided on the largest of the Greek Islands (Crete).



Crete offers so much variety for the visitor and it seemed like the best choice for a family with younger children.  Sure there are more romantic smaller Islands to explore as well as the main land with it's distinct culture and many archaeological wonders like the Parthenon.  With the Greek crisis still going on we had no interest in going to Athens for now and wanted to avoid the smaller, touristy Islands like Mykonos, Naxos or Santorini.  Crete features a bit of everything, gorgeous beaches, special Cretan food and wine, many archaeological ruins from the Minoan era and gorgeous canyons and mountains.  Our family stayed at a Scandinavian sponsored resort near the city of Chania.  The resort had a mix of Swedes, Finns, Norwegians and Danes.  I think I was the only American in the entire resort and our kids were probably the only children who spoke English.  That wasn't a problem and the Greek staff was very friendly and curious about our mixed Finnish/American family.



During the week we visited two of the most well known beaches on the Island (Elafonisi and Phalasarna).  We also journeyed half way across the Island to visit the famous Minoan ruins of Knossos which feature ruins of a civilization that dates back as far as 3400 BC!  It was amazing to think about a civilization even older than the Greek and Roman periods while I was walking around their ancient city with my family.  We also spent a few days exploring the famous city of Chania which features a wonderful old town and Venetian port from the 16th century. However, perhaps the best part of the trip was just relaxing around the sandy beaches and swimming pool while soaking in the sun and enjoying the wonderful Greek food and drink.  In comparison to Finland where it costs roughly 100 euros for our family (4 total) to enjoy a decent dinner with food and drinks, it was about half of that or 50 euros total.  I am still going through Greek salad burnout now, but while there I was thoroughly enjoying those tasty fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and Feta cheese in the classic Greek salad.  The week was very special and raced by quickly, but the pleasant memories are forever burned into my mind.  Crete is a special place and I definitely plan on returning to Greece in the future.

Stayed tuned for the final portion of our summer vacation, part 3 which will be featured in my next blog post! 


Thursday, August 1, 2013

Summer vacation part I (Estonia & Latvia)

There is nothing I love more about living in Finland than the long summer breaks.  Many people, including our family, take the entire month of July off (plus or minus a week).  It means lots of long sunny days, adventures and travel.  Our family appreciates both adventure and relaxation and we decided to kick off our summer vacation with a ferry/car trip across the Gulf of Finland to Estonia and Latvia.  These two Baltic countries are in close proximity and since they are relatively cheaper than Finland, they make a nice getaway.

Kuressaare Castle
We started by driving from the capital city of Tallinn to the island of Saaremaa in the Northwest corner of the country.  This easy drive included a 30 minute ferry ride to get to Saaremaa.  Before arriving at the hotel we explored the Kaali meteorite crater.  This 110 meter wide crater is estimated to be 4000 years old.  I can only imagine the power of this crater when it hit the earth and created a impact comparable to the Hiroshima bomb.  Next stop on the Estonia tour was our hotel located in the idyllic city of Kuressaare.  The hotel was very nice and located right next to the bay and the Kuressaare castle.  This little city, the capital of Saaremaa county, dates back to the 13th century.  Our family enjoyed the brief stay in this region of Estonia before packing up and driving down to Latvia.

Kaali Meteorite Crater
My wife and I have been to Tallinn, Estonia several times because of the close proximity to Finland, but never had ventured further.  Latvia is the next country in line and it is only a 4-5 hour drive from the top of Estonia to the border. All 3 of the Baltic countries are tiny in comparison to major European countries and are easily navigated through by car.  We stayed in Latvia for a brief visit to the capital city of Riga and a few surrounding cities.  Riga is a very nice city situated on a river and like Tallinn also features an old and new town.  What makes Riga unique is that it features art nouveau and 19th century wooden architecture.  The historic center is a UNESCO world heritage site and the European cultural capital of 2014.  Riga seems to be pointed in the right direction these last several years.  However with that said, Riga is still not in the European monetary community as they are still using their local currency.  While gasoline was significantly cheaper than in Estonia and Finland, I didn't think overall prices were that much less.  At least not in the capital area.

Riga, Latvia
After Riga, we would begin our drive back to Estonia and spend our final day of this journey in the capital city of Tallinn.  During our drive back to Tallinn from Riga, we encountered an large parade of cars that were headed North at fast speeds with police following at the rear and front.  We wondered what famous dignitary could be driving with so many cars following?  My wife was driving behind them and kept following at speeds of about 120 km/h (75 mph).  Finally after an hour or so as we approached the Estonian border, the policeman at the rear stopped in front of us and told us to wait 5 minutes before proceeding.  Then as the Latvian police car drove back away from us, we noticed the other police pointing his finger and scolding us.  I guess we must have followed them too closely and they were not too happy about that.  Finally, we were on our way and passing the Estonian border back to Tallinn.  The next day in Tallinn we would see the German president's wife having lunch with the Estonian president's wife and finally figured out that the German president, Joachim Gauck, had been visiting the Baltic countries.  Next time we know to be careful when following a 15 car entourage.  :)  The visit to Tallinn was fun as I always enjoy this bustling little medieval city just 2 hours via ferry from Helsinki, Finland.  It used to be a cheap paradise for Finns coming to save a little cash, but today prices have risen and it is also in the European community. Other places we visited in Tallinn were the very interesting KGB spy museum in the Hotel Viru and the Maritime museum at Seaplane harbor.

Trailing German President Gauck from Latvia to Estonia
Overall, we had a very nice time for leg # 1 of our summer vacation.  Summer trip leg #2 to be continued in part #2.  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Midsummer sports getaway at Vierumäki

This year our family decided that instead of experiencing a traditional Midsummer, we would take part in an active Midsummer weekend at the Vierumäki sports academy/facility/hotel. Vierumäki is known in Finland for being a training place for all kinds of athletes, from professionals to recreational athletes, and for providing a nice overall place for sports and outdoor adventures.  We purchased the Midsummer package which included the hotel, food and organized sports activities for the entire family. This would be the true alternative to a classic Midsummer where most folks go to the cabin by the lake, relax and drink all weekend long.


I had no idea what I was getting into when my wife told me that we would be taking part in these organized sports activities.  I thought maybe a few fun games with the children, some Frisbee and perhaps some hikes.  Little did I know what types of physical activities were in store for me.  I consider myself fairly athletic, so I am always up for a little challenge.  We arrived Friday afternoon and had a stretching class that afternoon while the children had some fun activities for their age groups.  Kids' activities throughout the weekend included circus games, gymnastics, urban warfare (think Nerf balls) and orienteering.   Later that afternoon, we finished up the activities by jumping off the dock into a cold lake followed by a Sauna.  That evening featured a more typical Midsummer celebration with a children's band playing along side a bar and the traditional lighting of the bonfire in the middle of the lake.


Saturday was the most intense day with exercise starting early in the morning and lasting till the late afternoon. We started with kids versus adults fun indoor soccer (football) game followed by indoor floor hockey.  The kids beat the adults on most occasions.   Last game was team dodge ball which brought back great childhood memories.  After the morning games ended, my wife and I attended a brutal cross-fit session and then I tried Nordic walking after lunch.  I had always wanted to try both cross-fit and the Scandinavian Nordic walking.  The morning cross-fit session was a brutal workout and now I understand why most of the folks who practice cross-fit on a regular basis are bad asses.  The afternoon Nordic walking session lasted 1.5 hours and by the end of the session the trainer had us running up hills with our poles (walking sticks).  Nordic walking which is very popular in Finland, might look funny, but provides a great arm workout on top of the already great cardio workout.  The poles also provide stability which can help you navigate the rougher outdoor trails.  Just remember to bring your mosquito repellent, because they are vicious in the Finnish forests during the summer time.  By Saturday our family was so thoroughly wiped out from a long day of exercise and activities that we hit the sack by 10 pm.


On Sunday, we had one last exercise session which was core fitness.  This also turned out be a great session, but my muscles were screaming by the end.  I survived the final class which was followed up by a sumptuous lunch back at the hotel.  Our bodies were royally exhausted by the end of the weekend.  Wasn't this supposed to be a relaxing getaway to the lake cabin and sit around drinking and eating weekend?  :)  Traditionally in Finland Midsummer is a weekend of relaxing with good friends by seashore or lake, but we decided this year to try something different and it was a very rewarding overall experience.




Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The KISS monster rolls through Finland



I have seen many unique artists live in my lifetime, including many bands that might be considered some of the greatest of all-time.  In spite of that, there are still a few bands that I need to check off the bucket list and KISS was one of those.  The band's storied career now spans 40 years since they started in the New York city club scene.  Say what you will about KISS and their music, there is perhaps no other band that is so hard working and determined to give their fans their money's worth during their live performances.   KISS put on quite a spectacle at Helsinki's Hartwall Arena on June 3rd.

Founding members Gene Simmons "The Demon" and Paul Stanley "Starchild" were joined by Tommy Thayer "Spaceman" on lead guitar and Eric Singer "Catman" on the drums. There has been much debate as to whether KISS should allow non-founding members to wear both Ace Frehley's "SpaceMan" and Peter Criss' "Catman" personas.  I don't think it should matter that much because much of the genius of the KISS machine is keeping the comic book character personas alive no matter who might be behind the makeup.  This is perhaps what makes KISS so interesting and I think putting on their black and white make-up was a brilliant career move considering it seems to hide the fact that both Gene and Paul are over 60 years old now.  :)

KISS rolled into Helsinki as part of their "Monster" tour.  Having never seen a live KISS show before, I had no idea what was in store for me. The band kicked off the night by being dropped down on a platform from the ceiling of the arena.  The stage extravaganza seemed to never let up as countless flames, fireworks, smoke and explosions filled the night. Gene Simmons did his patented blood spitting and even blew fire during the night. Paul Stanley flew through the air and Eric Singer's drum set was raised high in the air.   These rock dinosaurs' stage set was on steroids.  The music also lived up to the legend as they played most of their greatest hits including "I love it loud," "Deuce," "Heaven's on Fire," "Detroit Rock City" and many other favorites.  I was never a huge fan of their music to be honest, but I think their music has a place in the rock world and it sounds great live.  During their long career they have done rock, metal, pop, ballads and even disco.   I thought the Helsinki show was great and probably beyond my expectations for a bunch of guys in their 50s and 60s.  I think the big question that remains is when is the band going to retire for good.   Perhaps the KISS machine will continue with different reincarnations of members in full make-up playing the same characters?  I kind of find it hard for them to continue without any of the original founding members.  What happens in the future remains to be seen.

Helsinki setlist below:





Saturday, June 1, 2013

Living in a land full of linguists

In the United States most children are not given a choice to begin studying a second language until high school.  Sure, English is the national language in the US, but doesn't it make sense to start exposing our children to more languages at an early age?  I have to admit that I do have some regret about not having been taught any additional languages in my early years.  I was not exposed to any other languages until I started learning Spanish during my sophomore year in high school.  There are proven studies that learning a second or third language is much more effective when it is started before age of 7 or 8.

In Finland, it is mandatory for all kids to start learning a second language in 3rd grade.  In elementary school, most children learn both English and Swedish (Finland's 2nd national language) as second and third languages, respectively.  The third language is usually started at the 7th grade, and many children elect to start a fourth language at 8th grade.  So, by the time most children graduate from high school they are usually fluent in 3 or more languages. Since they start taking these language classes when they are fairly young, they build a solid base and much of the learning is preserved.  It is much harder to learn and retain a language when you start much later in life.  I am amazed everyday at how easily people switch between languages.  In my workplace we have several people who speak English, Swedish and Finnish in their daily interactions and they don't struggle at all. I also have some co-workers who speak German, Spanish, French, Romanian and Dutch.

In the United States, educators and parents might think that there is no point in learning additional languages because our only official language is English, but I think they are missing the point. There is strong learning and growth in the brain when we study and pick up additional languages and that training has been proven to facilitate other areas of learning.  There are only positive benefits of learning additional languages, and I think many American educators and parents might be short-sighted in their way of thinking.  Hopefully, in the future things will change and there will be an increased acceptance of learning additional languages in the United States.  I know that Spanish is becoming increasingly more important to learn, especially in my home state of California.  They really should require a second language like Spanish or French in grammar school; I think the benefits would be priceless.

My son, who moved to Finland at age 5 has learned the difficult Finnish language fluently after just under one year of living here.  He had heard a little bit of Finnish as a child, but had never spoken a word before we moved to Finland.  We basically did the immersion method, just placing him in an all Finnish school.  The teachers were very good about first explaining things in English and then switching to Finnish.  But, after 7 or 8 months they no longer had to use any English and switched to only Finnish.  Knowing how difficult the Finnish language is, I was amazed how quickly he learned.  He is even twisting most of the words correctly and in Finnish they have approximately 15 different cases for nouns.  One neat thing is that if you learn 2 languages early enough you will not have an accent in any of the languages and they will both sound natural and native.   At age 5 the brain is a sponge absorbing everything that is thrown at it, and kids learn fast.  I am glad that he was able to have this experience of learning another language at a young age. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The frustrating art of predicting Finnish weather


If there has been one thing that I have learned after living in southern Finland for nearly two years, it would be the unpredictable nature of the weather.  The first winter we lacked snow in December (2011) and didn't have a white Christmas and everyone complained.   I guess the snow gods woke up because the rest of the winter brought loads of snow and by April people were wishing for spring.  Then the 2012 summer arrived or did it?  May was pretty decent, then June rolled around and the rain started.  I had mentioned to a good friend of mine that Midsummer (summer solstice) would be the best time to visit Finland.  You would think late June with its eternal sunshine would also be the safest chance for good weather on a visit to Finland.  Wrong!   I took him and his family to Linnanmäki amusement park on a rainy day.
At the park the umbrellas came out, but the rides didn't stop.  This is Finland and here people just go on with their days.  We made the best out of the day and enjoyed our time at the amusement park despite the conditions.  Looking on the bright side, the rain meant the ride lines were about half the size of normal.  Spring 2012 was promising, but the summer was one of the coolest that locals could remember and that had everyone complaining and thinking that they needed to get out of Finland for the next summer (2013).


The year flew by and then again old man winter was upon us again.  The winters in Finland can seem a bit like Bill Murray's character in "Groundhog's Day". This time a blizzard came during the final weekend of November dumping snow everywhere. Snow came a month earlier this winter and assured everyone of a magical white Christmas that was sorely missed the prior year.  The winter of 2012-2013 turned out even longer and brought more snow than many had imagined.  The final snow storm didn't arrive till the first week in March and the snow lasted on the ground until just about May this year.  It was quite a long and cold winter.  Interesting enough, March 2013 had many days around -10 Celsius (15 F) and was considered the coldest March in 50 years.  April was still a bit cool and then Vappu (May 1st "May Day") came.  Vappu wasn't that warm, but since it was sunny it was deemed a success.  Which brings us to Mother's Day (May 12, 2013), the day I wrote this post.  What can I say, yesterday it was 22 Celsius in Espoo (71 F) and it is predicted (if one can actually predict weather in Finland) to be quite warm next week, with temps rising past 23 C (73 F) by the end of the week.  Surprisingly enough, this little warm streak in early to mid May will perhaps make it a much warmer month than last June of 2012.  May, June, July, August.  In Finland these months could be cold or warm, stormy, or sunny, you just never really know.  The summers in Finland can be outstanding, but they are typically short and sweet.  According to the calendar summer is from June 20th - September 22nd, but in my mind, I would have to say Finland's "summer" is July 1st - August 15th, plus or minus a week on either side.  :)  So after suffering through 4-5 straight months of cold, snow and ice, the pay back is 1-2 months of summer.  Now you can understand why Finns cherish the long, warm summer days.  That is life at latitude 60' North, and one should never have any expectations about the weather because it will be an exercise in frustration.  The key to happiness and success here is just to go about your day and forget about the weather and the predictions.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The thriving music scene in Finland

I have always loved music and live concerts and feel lucky to have grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area with its thriving music scene. I grew up with endless opportunities to see live shows in clubs, arenas or large stadiums.  San Francisco provided a diverse scene and there was never a shortage of shows or venues.  It seemed that everyone in the music industry eventually came through the area.  I have seen my share of shows and have even bumped into some famous musicians along the way.  I thought moving to somewhat isolated Finland might have meant the end of my concert days.



Contrary to what one might think, it is not just tango and folk music here in Finland.  Little did I know that many Finns are crazy about music and they are especially known for their love for heavy metal.  Since Finns enjoy music and attending concerts, there are several places for artists to play here and many of the shows are well attended.  Finland, and notably Helsinki, has many differently sized venues depending on the artist.  Most famously known is perhaps the Olympic Stadium (home of the Helsinki 1952 Summer Olympics).  This stadium gets some of the most globally successful artists who come to Finland.  Some examples of bands that have played here include Muse, Bruce Springsteen and U2.  I was lucky enough to get a ticket to attend the U2 show during the Summer of 2010.  It was an amazing show despite a bit of pesky August rain.  The stadium shows are very seasonable, and the stadiums are not used during the frigid winters.  Next in the pecking order of venues is the Hartwall Arena in Helsinki.  This Arena is also used for hockey and other events and seems to be the most popular venue for popular artists who do not necessarily want to play a stadium show.  Also, it works great in the worst of winter conditions when the stadium is off limits.  Examples of past shows that have been held here include Britney Spears, Madonna, Black Sabbath and Rush.  The last example and my favorite is the local club venues.  I am familiar with 4 of these clubs in Helsinki.  The largest one, which gets the greatest amount of international artists, is called Circus.  Steve Vai and Europe recently played here and the Smashing Pumpkins just sold out their show scheduled for this August.   In addition to Circus, other well known nightclubs are Tavastia,  Nosturi and to a lesser extent Virgin Oil (restaurant/club).  Tavastia Club gets a nice mix of local and international artists while Nosturi seems to have the metal market under its wings.  Tavastia recently had 2 shows by a Finnish favorite Von Hertzen Brothers and Nosturi recently had Scottish rocker Biffy Clyro and American guitar wiz Paul Gilbert.  Last, but not least on my well known club list is Virgin Oil.  Recent shows here included former Scorpion Michael Schenker and popular Finnish 80's rocker, Michael Monroe, formerly with the band Hanoi Rocks.

Also, Finland enjoys a nice summer festival music season.  There are numerous opportunities for music concerts during the summer.  Provinssirock in Seinäjoki, Ruisrock in Turku and the Tuska open air metal festival are a few of the larger rock events.  However, in addition to rock there are festivals for just about every music lover, including the Pori Jazz and Kaustinen Folk festivals.  Not to mention the "hipster" Flow festival.  If you are young and cool or old and established there is probably something that will appeal to your fancy.



My guess is that the Helsinki scene gets probably 80% of the international artists who pass through, however other major cities such as Oulu, Tampere and Turku get their fair share of gigs as well.  Last summer the Red Hot Chili Peppers came to Finland and decided to play the Ratina Stadium in Tampere instead of Helsinki.  I continue to be pleasantly surprised by quantity and quality of the artists who come to Finland.  Before moving to Finland I have would have never imagined that so many artists would decide to come to this country because of its relative geographical isolation.  In order to come here from central Europe one cannot just jump on a train, one needs to take a ferry or fly.  I think Finland has established a good reputation among artists and concert promoters as a place that really appreciates music and quite frequently sells out top shows in minutes.  For example, twice I tried to get a ticket for the Black Sabbath reunion show at the Hartwall Arena.  Both times (once in 2011 and again in 2013), I was not able to get a ticket because the show sold out in approximately 5 minutes online.   I once read an article that Finland has the highest per capita interest in heavy metal in the world. Hard rock and heavy metal are definitely the favorite genres among Finnish people, although there are many popular artists in various different musical categories.  There are different theories on why this true, but I think the interest in dark and heavy music comes from the fact that Finland is geographically isolated with its long and dark winters.  This environment seems to have given birth to many Nordic metal heads.



I personally like many different genres of  music and can enjoy many different artists.  I do appreciate the fact that many different bands make the trip to Finland in spite of its location.  This was a pleasant surprise for myself and I will continue to support and enjoy the music scene whether living in the San Francisco Bay Area or Finland.

Images:

(Circus belongs of within-temptation.com, Nosturi belongs to Microcuts.net, Tavastia belongs to Metro.fi and Hartwall Arena belongs to www.hartwall-areena.com)








Saturday, April 13, 2013

Blissful Budapest


Those who have been reading my blog know that even though I enjoy living abroad in Finland, I really like taking an occasional  kid-free weekend getaway to other European cities.  It gives my wife and I time to get away from our daily routine while exploring new places.  We try to schedule in two "weekend getaway" trips per year and space them out accordingly.

 The spring 2013 adventure was a nice weekend trip to beautiful Budapest.  Budapest is the capital of Hungary, which is a landlocked country located almost directly in the middle of Europe.  Budapest is a city that I always wanted to visit and for some reason I neglected it during my post-college Europe whirlwind backpacking trip.  Back then it was a bit of an exotic eastern European destination and it wasn't always on the top of everyone's travel plans.  Now, along with Prague, Budapest seems to be a world class destination in eastern Europe.  We couldn't agree more and really enjoyed the city and all it had to offer.  Budapest is more or less broken into two distinct sections.  Those sections, split up by the Danube river, include the older section named Buda and the newer section called Pest.  The Buda castle, which sits high on a ridge, dominates the Buda side and is also the main tourist attraction.  On the first day we took the funicular up to the top of the high ridge to begin our exploration.  These activities included watching the changing of the guards, walking around the castle grounds and exploring the Fisherman's bastion while taking in the amazing views of Pest and the Danube.  It seems that every great capital city in Europe features a river or is a coastal town. The amazing Danube river splits the city nicely in half and greatly adds to the charm of this beautiful city.  The city also features many unique bridges, which allow people to easily access either side of the city.  The most recognizable of these is the famous Chain bridge.  We had an awesome view of the Chain Bridge as well as the Buda castle from our hotel room on the Pest side of town.



The Pest side is the more modern section of town which also has many nice features including the classic Parliament house, the Hero's Square and the famous Andrassy Avenue shopping district.  On day two, we explored this side of the town.  We kicked things off with a scheduled tour of the Parliament house.  The Parliament house seemed much more grandiose than a typical Parliament building.  The building was huge and you felt more like you were in some French palace than a government building.  One of the highlights inside is perhaps the most valuable relic of Hungarian history, the Holy crown of Hungary.  This crown which still appears in great condition is believed to be approximately 800 - 1,000 years old and a very important piece of their history.  It is guarded by 3 to 4 guards armed with swords.  These guards looked very serious and I think that one would not want to mess with them.  Later in the day we ventured down Andrassy Avenue to the "House of Terror."  This building, which is now a museum, features much of the tragic history during the last century when Hungary was dealing with Hitler and communism from the Soviet Union.  The house also was a prison and many Hungarians who were accused of not being patriotic to their government were tortured inside.  It was a fascinating but sad piece of history.  After leaving the museum we walked over to perhaps the most famous square in all of Budapest, the Hero's square.  It features large statues of all the past "Heros" of Hungarian history.  Interesting enough there was a dog training class going on at the same time we strolled the square.  The day would end with a long stroll down the shopping street Andrassy Avenue which would take us all the way down to Vorosmarty square which featured a large open air food and crafts market.  Many of the items in this market were Hungarian specialties geared toward tourists.  My wife grabbed a few souvenirs to take home and I bought a bottle of the famous Hungarian sweet dessert wine, Tokaji.


Budapest, while not Paris or Rome, is still an awesome city for a weekend getaway in Europe.  We had much to do, plenty of sites to see and good food to eat.  There are so many city getaway vacation options while living in Helsinki and Europe in general and if you are feeling a bit more adventurous than going on your typical London or Paris vacation, then Budapest makes a nice weekend.  I would recommend it, and probably sooner than later. While it is not nearly as expensive as most major western European capital cities, the prices are starting to creep up.  The values might be fading, but definitely not the charm.


Friday, March 22, 2013

Parking in Finland

Excuse me, but I need to go on a little rant now about parking in Finland.  I have been frustrated with the parking situation in Finland for sometime now and have kept quiet about it, but now I must vent a bit!  Finland is a relatively large country by European norms and is very sparsely populated.   I would expect builders here in Finland to build proper parking lots with enough space for people to park most types of cars.  Why not, since space is not that limited, with notable exception to Helsinki.  Perhaps it is the public policy to build the spaces smaller?  I am not one of these American "bigger is better" car owners with a jumbo sized SUV or Escalade. I  currently drive a mid-sized Toyota Camry family car.  There never seems to be enough space to park your car in the Helsinki-Espoo-Vantaa area (Southern Finland).  It could be the local shopping mall, your friends row home (town house) parking lot or the local Supermarket, parking is not always going to be easy.  The spots are roughly a quarter size smaller than what you would expect in the USA and making matters more difficult is that many of the parking lots are underground because of the frequent harsh weather conditions here in Finland.  When you pull into the store's underground parking lot, expect a tiny lane the usually dips down a few floors and twists and turns around hair pin corners to the bottom.  Once you are lucky enough to find a free parking spot (because spots are normally at a premium) then you can take a deep breathe and get back to your business.  There are almost never parking attendants in Finnish garages, so when you leave the lot, you usually have to pay and validate your ticket at a machine before leaving the garage unless it is a free spot.  In the case of a free (timed)  spot, you need to leave your parking disc on your dashboard.  The twenty-four hour parking disc displays the time you parked.  Most spots allow at least 1 hour if they are free.  Most folks are honest about setting their disc start time correctly when they arrive.

The winter weather also adds quite a challenge to outdoor parking.  Ice, snow and bone chilling temperatures in the early morning makes it quite the experience.  First you should spent at least 5 minutes warming up your car and scraping the ice of the windshield to ensure safe driving/parking.  Then, after arriving at one's destination, one may need to squeeze their car into an icy spot, sliding between some other cars and avoid those large clumps of snow that has been building up for weeks.  Those of us from warmer climates should definitely appreciate and not take what we have for granted.



Doesn't sound all that bad, right?  Well, if you can get past the smaller spots, tight garages and winter weather, there is the constant threat of a parking ticket.  I have received 3 parking tickets since moving to Finland.  The price in Espoo is 60 euros per ticket which is roughly 80 $, so definitely more than one would pay in the States.  Some of these tickets were my own fault for forgetting to set my parking disc, but the thing is that when you overextend your parking time or forget your disc you will almost always be popped for it.  There is no breaking the rules in Finland, they will get you almost every time.   One time my wife left the car quickly to get the change for the parking machine and in just a few minutes while she was gone, a hidden parking attendant wrote her up a ticket. It seems as if they are just sitting there and waiting, then they pounce on the opportunity to give a ticket.  In Finland it is usually very difficult to fight a ticket once it is issued.  You can attempt to email or call them, but normally they will not take the time to help or be empathetic to your situation.  Luckily, in my wife's situation, they said they allowed up to 10 minutes to get your cash, so they let her off, but that was after she emailed several times back and forth with no clear resolution.

I think that society in Finland is more geared toward public transportation.  That is probably a good thing, but some of us with families need a car which makes transportation a bit more convenient.  However, with that said I just don't understand the tight little parking spaces, strict rules about tickets and lack of parking attendants.





Sunday, March 3, 2013

March snow storm in Southern Finland

After several weeks of unseasonably warm temperatures and only light snow in February, March came in a flurry....a flurry of snow that is.  A snow storm of blizzard like conditions hit overnight and left an estimated 6-8 inches (15-20 centimeters) of snow on the ground in the morning all over South and Southwest Finland.  Mid to late February had been a bit warmer than average (for Finland) and when March rolled in many people thought that maybe Spring had sprung.  Little did they know that old man winter in Finland has a few tricks left up his sleeves.  My wife and I spent about 2-3 hours clearing our driveway and cars this morning.  Mother nature always provides the best workout.  :)

A few shots to near our neighborhood:









Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Winter break week has arrived in Finland

Where has all the time gone?  It seems like it was just Christmas and now suddenly the ski week also known as the "winter break" has arrived.  Every school in Finland has one week off in February and that week changes depending on what part of the country you live in.  The goal is that that everyone doesn't take the week off at the same time.  Seems like a reasonable plan and then one would expect that every ski resort or vacation spot is not surrounded with millions of screaming children.  :)

What does the typical Finnish family do for a winter break?  That really depends on the family's budget and its interests.  It seems that there are two distinct types of vacations that people take during the Finnish winter holiday.  There are the sun seekers who just need a break from the long Finnish winter and there are the snow lovers, who enjoy skiing, sledding, ice skating and other outdoor winter sports.  There might even be a lucky few families who manage to do a little of both during the week long break.  The sun seekers from Finland have a few favorite destination spots.  The most popular by far seems to be the Canary Islands.  The folks from the United States might have no clue about this small cluster of Islands off the coast of Northern Africa owned by Spain.  I haven't been there myself, but it seems the Canary Islands have taken over as the Hawaiian Islands alternative for Europeans.  There are a few other sunny options in February, but none quite as popular as the Canary Islands.  Other prominent destinations for sun seeking Finns include Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and Egypt in Northern Africa.  For those more adventurous with additional time on their hands, some might even venture all the way to Thailand.   There are direct flights from Helsinki to Thailand and those are growing more popular with Finns. The southern European countries of Spain, Greece and Italy are beautiful and pleasant in the winter, but also might be a bit cool this time a year so they are not as popular.

Then there is the snow sports seeking crowd. There are a multitude of options for these folks.  Many loyal to their country decide to fly or drive up to Lapland for a pseudo downhill ski vacation.  I say pseudo because if you aren't really that familiar with Finland, it is a very flat country.  The northern part of the country (Lapland, etc.) gets a bit steeper, but I think the largest mountain is Halti at only 1,324 meters.  I am from the San Francisco Bay Area and we have a 1,024 meter mountain alongside my little home town.  Suffice to say there are many 1 kilometer mountains in California and we even see mountains in the 2 and 3+ kilometer range.  Others may choose to go exploring the Alps and other wonderful ski places throughout Europe.   There are many choices scattered throughout Italy, France, Switzerland, Austria and other countries.   The budget minded stay home and hit the local cross country trails, sledding hills and some small downhill resorts.  For example, within 5 to 10 minutes from my home there are hundreds of kilometers of cross country ski trails, sledding hills and natural ice rinks.  Our kids should have plenty of activities to choose from if we stay local.  I prefer to cross country ski when I have the time because it is such a great overall exercise and it is a great way to get out to the nature at the same time.  My kids enjoy skating, sledding and building snowmen.

Winter is cold, winter is long, winter is horrible.... Yea, you have already heard it all from many Finnish blogs, and I have been guilty myself of repeating similar thoughts.  In spite of everything, winter is also a joyous time of the year and the snow scenery can be captivating and magical.  Make the most of it and then take the pleasure to know that once old man winter decides to crawl back into his cave there will be bright days ahead for many months.