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.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Chef & Sommelier - A little culinary gem in Helsinki


The restaurant itself is located in a very intimate house in the Eira district of Helsinki and seats about 20-25.  It is nicely decorated and comfortable on the inside.
The customer service is outstanding, the Sommelier Johan is full of knowledge and ready to please while Sasu, the main Chef, is energetic and excited to spread knowledge of all his organic specialties. He will actually come out from the kitchen and explain all the dishes (where he picked the herbs, who caught the fish, etc.)  This restaurant blew my mind from my previous expectations of Finnish restaurants.  They have service nailed.  Having coming from a culinary mecca such as the San Francisco Bay Area, my expectations are usually pretty high and this place delivers the goods.  I haven’t even mentioned the food, which is also outstanding.

chef-sommelier-ctThey have a fixed price menu which is currently priced reasonably for a restaurant of this caliber.  They let you pick from 3 to 7 dishes depending on what you feel like, you can pick anything on their seasonal menu which changes 4 times a year.  Everything is fresh and organic and made with care.  I haven’t really had a dish I did not  like there.  Their wine menu, while priced a bit high, did have some nice selections from all over Europe.  I think it would be nice however, if they tossed in some California or Oregon wines to mix it up a bit.  I really look forward to every visit here which is more of a dining experience than just a dinner out.
Every time we have eaten here, we spent 2.5 – 3 hours which is quite nice if you like really taking time to savor the dishes and enjoy the surroundings.  So, if you are a local Finn, expat like myself, or tourist coming to visit Helsinki, please make a visit to this wonderful little restaurant.  You will not be disappointed.  For weekend reservations, I would recommend calling them at least 1-2 months in advance.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Settling into a busy life in Finland

One of the major reasons we moved to Finland was to slow down.  To take time away from the crazy Bay Area (California) lifestyle and enjoy a more relaxed pace of living.  In some ways it has been that, but other ways I feel we are becoming just as busy as before.

It is good to keep oneself occupied with activities, but there is always the danger of burn out.  The first year living abroad in Finland was a time for learning and discovery.  Finding out new places, bus routes, getting around the cities, getting to know neighbors and school parents, learning the general system, rules, grocery stores, etc.  You can make a case that the first year or so, you are still very much a tourist versus an expat.   I think now after 1.5 years in Finland, we have plateaued or gotten over that initial hump and are fully engaged in our day to day activities and generally feel like this is home (for now at least).  My son is now involved in karate, gymnastics and swimming classes every week while my daughter is keeping busy with sports that include swimming and soccer.  She is also looking forward to badminton and other sports.  My wife works full time and is also getting an LLM (advanced degree in law) at the same time.   I have now been working for a Finnish technology start-up ( for nearly 1 year now.  In addition to taxiing my children to all their after school activities, I engage myself in various outdoors activities such as cross country skiing, jogging and cycling.  I am realizing it is very difficult to find spare time for social outlets, but I sometimes find some treasured moments for an occasional concert or a few beers with friends.  These winter days, by the time the weekend arrives I am fully ready to just lay around and do absolutely nothing, until my inner fire to get active outdoors strikes again.

My hope is not to fall into the "rat race" in Finland that consumed our family in the United States.  On the bright side, in Finland, when time off is taken, it is really enjoyed.  I have mentioned this in previous posts, that generally when people take vacations in Finland, they take plenty of time to relax and do not check work unless it is critical.  In the US, many jobs have pressure to always be available even if you are away on vacation.

We are now deep into the middle of winter, but have turned the corner as the days are getting lighter and lighter.  The worst of the long dark days are gone for now, but we will still have to deal with about 6 weeks of winter weather until the inevitable Spring thaw begins.  Enjoy some recent pics I took during my morning walk to the bus stop.  Finland is beautiful in the winter when the trees display their fresh white coats.