Friday, January 27, 2012

Tips on surviving a Finnish winter

You have probably heard many of the stereotypes about Scandinavia and Finland in the winter time.  "It is icy, cold, freezing, snowy and unbearable, etc."  However, when it comes down to it, the main issue in my opinion is not the chilly weather, but the darkness.  One can always prepare for colder weather by wearing more layers, scarves, hats, and warm jackets, however battling short, dark days is an entirely different story.   When winter kicks off in late December in Southern Finland, the sunrise is about 9:30am and sunset is 3:00pm. There actually is a medical term called SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder.  From Wiki : "Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as winter depressionwinter bluessummer depressionsummer blues, or seasonal depression, is a mood disorder in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms in the winter or summer,[1] spring or autumn year after year. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(DSM-IV), SAD is not a unique mood disorder, but is a specifier of major depression"  While this can be an issue, there are definitely many ways to combat it.  With a strong demeanor and open mind, you can make it through those dark days of winter in Finland.

Here are 5 tips that might help

1. Exercise - Finns are crazy about their sports and it seems even more so in the winter than the summer.  I have noticed many large sporting halls that feature plenty of fun activities.  The more popular indoor sports in Finland include, badminton, swimming, squash, tennis, and salibandy (floor hockey).  I also notice that many people are out skating on the numerous ice rinks around town. People are also out Nordic walking (walking with ski poles) and of course the very popular cross-country skiing.  Just because it is cold and snowy outside doesn't mean Finns store their bikes for the winter.  They just throw on spiked tires and go about their daily routines on two wheels.  So, keep active and you will feel invigorated and energetic even during the darkest of days.

2. Stay social - Just because it is -10 Celsius outside and dark, doesn't mean you should burrow and hibernate for the winter.  It is important to get out and keep active in your social groups and clubs.

3. Enjoy the outdoors - The days may be shorter, but that doesn't mean you cannot get out and enjoy them. Take a walk in the nature, run or cross-country ski.  Breathe in the fresh Arctic air.

4. Shift your schedule - During the winter, try to shift your schedule to doing your work earlier and perhaps later in the day.  Take a few hours in the middle of the day when it is lightest to do your chores, personal stuff, exercise, etc.  

5. Indoor sunlamp therapy- This might sound silly, but it actually works.   In Finland they sell these special sun lamps which are like a giant light bulb that simulates the sunlight in your room.  You can adjust the light to your needs and monitor how long they are one, etc.  Instant sun energy is coming your way.  :)

Sun lamp for light therapy

Monday, January 23, 2012

The ultimate Finnish outdoor winter experience

There are many reasons to come to visit Finland.  Unfortunately, not all visitors discover the inner circle of Finland's ultimate winter treats.  The trick is not just to visit this beautiful country in the summer time, (although that is my favorite season here).  Darkness and cold weather tend to be on people's mind during the winter months in Finland, but beyond the melancholy is a winter wonderland waiting to be explored.  One does truly need to step off the beaten path at times and dig into the local's world, in order to experience the magic of old man winter in Finland.

Sledding in Jyväskylä    
Our family journeyed up to Jyväskylä this last weekend.  It is about a 3.5 hour drive North from the Espoo/Helsinki area.  We visited some cousins who now call Jyväskylä their home.  The weekend called for skating, skiing, sledding and a bit of hiking.  So after arriving later that evening, we got dressed in multiple layers in order to keep Jack Frost from causing too much damage.  Soon enough we were dressed up in our winter clothes and ready to take a hike into the vast woods for dinner.  Dinner in the woods in the middle of winter in 23 degree Fahrenheit (-5 Celsius) weather with the snow coming down?  Huh, is something not quite right in this picture?   We started off on the path through the thick woods and about 1/2 kilometer later we reached the bonfire site near a frozen pond.  The first task of the night before dinner called for clearing the fresh snow from the frozen pond so that the kids could skate on it.  So, we shoveled and shoveled and finally about an hour later the ice rink was clear and ready to skate on.  The kids all laced their skates up and were raring to go.  Even when dressed up appropriately, nothing keeps the bite of coldness away like being active.  So, soon enough the bonfire was lit and the kids were skating by only flashlight and fire.  I had always heard about skating on a frozen lake when I was younger, but I never imagined I would actually be doing it some day.   The little pond made an excellent rink and the children were just thrilled zooming around in circles.  

Skating on the frozen pond
Soon enough appetites needed to be satiated after all that skating and shoveling, so we gathered by the bonfire which had now turned to hot coals.  A metal grate was placed over the fire and the Finnish sausages were thrown on.  It was quite surreal as we were all sitting out in a clearing in the dark forest by the fire watching the sausages cook as the snow fell harder.  I don't think a sausage ever tasted better in my life.  Sitting outdoors in the woods with a bonfire, snow covered trees and a frozen lake is quite the setting for dinner. Soon after dinner we packed up and trudged back via the forest path to their home.  I noticed my fingers were now starting to freeze even in my gloves and my mind was already drifting to thoughts of a warm Sauna that I will be thawing out in upon arrival.  We made sure to leave no trace behind so that mother nature will appreciate our visit and welcome us back.  A winter's walk through a snowy forest to a frozen lake by the fire, skating on the lake, sausages eaten outdoors, then a cold beer and a Sauna.  Can't think of a better way to spend a cold winter's night in Finland. :)  

<Click on all photos to enlarge>

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Finnish wine and beer experience

Finland is definitely not your wine and beer mecca of the world, but times are changing.  My observation is that many people (not all) aren't exactly drinking in this country to savor a boutique micro-brew or Gran Cru Bordeaux, but they are looking to get loaded.  However, in all fairness I am noticing a better selection of beers at the grocery stores and different wines offered at restaurants and Finland's wine monopoly store, Alko.  In Finland you cannot buy alcohol over 5% strength in the local grocery stores (that includes beer, wine and hard liquor). So, that means that all liquor purchases (stronger beer, wine, scotch, etc.) must be purchased at the monopoly store.   That means that you can only buy your wine from one government chain.  It would be like saying in the United States, that all wine and hard liquor can only be purchased at the Beverages and More chain.  There is no concept of a wine shop in Finland and it is not even legal to have one.  The government completely controls all alcohol sales in Finland.

So you want to try Finnish beer?  I hope you enjoy gold colored lager style beers then.  75% of Finnish beer seems to have a very similar taste and look.  Karhu, Koff, Lapin Kulta,Olvi, and Karjala are all very popular ones.  They are all typically sold in 3-5 different alcohol percentage designations.

percentage by volumesold in restaurantssold in storesnotes
I-beer0.0% - 2.8%yesyesdoesn't require a license
II-beer2.8% – 3.7%yesyesnot usually used in Finland, however, it is used in Sweden
III-beer3.7% - 4.7%yesyesknown as "keskiolut", "kolmosolut" or "kolmonen", the most popular class of beer in Finland
IVA-beer4.8% - 5.2%yesnosteep taxation before the 1995 reform, usually sold as Export-beers
IVB-beer5.2% - 8.0%yesnosteep taxation before the 1995 reform, usually sold as Export-beers
If you want imported beers like Heineken, Miller or Corona you can get them, but be prepared to spend about $3 or more per can in the grocery store.  I was surprised to see Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (from my home state-California) in the Alko store, but they wanted like $4 per bottle for it!  I was also in this "American" restaurant called Chico's a few weeks back and they had a "Taste of California" feature on their menus and it included, not one, but 3 types of Sierra Nevada beers! They had the Torpedo IPA, Porter and Pale Ale.  Wow, It was a pleasant surprise that they carried it.  They even had a map in the restaurant highlighting the city of Chico, California.  Chico, Ca is a university town in Northern Cal that is famous for starting the Sierra Nevada Brewery among other things.  It is considered a micro-brewery and is now one of largest micro-breweries in USA.  So, spending $3 on a beer in a store might seem a bit steep, but if you want to go out for a beer to the center of Helsinki, be prepared to pay from $8-$10 per beer.

You want to try Finnish wine?  Ha - did you really think they grow grapes in Finland?  :)  Well,  I have heard of a few different Finnish fruit wines, but I haven't tried them yet.  In the meanwhile, you can get your wine from the monopoly Alko store.  The store prominently features wines from France, Italy, Spain and South America (Peru and Argentina).   You will not find that much California wine, at least not in most Alko shops.  Time to get used to that "un-oaked" Chardonnay or Chablis from France or a light earthy red instead of the California fruit bomb you are used to.  Actually, the selection at Alko is not all that bad, and many decent wines can be purchased for about $10-$20.

Wine in restaurants is a whole different "ball game" in Finland as compared to the United States.  First of all, you are quite limited when ordering by the glass versus buying a bottle.  However, if you think you are going to save money by ordering a glass of wine, think twice.  Finnish bars and restaurants actually measure the pour of wine they give you and it comes in 2 or 3 different sizes.  You can have a "normal" glass of wine which is 12 deciliters or a larger 18-20 deciliter glass.  Prices for single glasses are for the small version and if you want a larger pour you will be charged twice the price.  Essentially that means for a good glass of wine it will be $10 or more for a small and $20 or more for a larger pour of wine.  In US the larger glass would be the "normal" glass and you would pay much less than $20.   I was kind of shocked to see the waiters measuring the wine, seems kind of silly, but that is how they do it in Finland. So, then why not just save by buying a bottle of wine you might ask?  In a decent restaurant in Finland wine is marked up like 3-4x the normal cost of a bottle, compared to about 2x in US (most cases).  So, it is hard to find a decent bottle under $60 US.  OK, the first two options don't save any money, then why not just bring a nice bottle of wine to the restaurant and pay a corkage fee like in the US.  Sorry, bringing a bottle of wine is not an accepted practice in Finland and not allowed at this time (as far as I know).  I guess just try to limit your wine consumption in Finland or stick to wine at home that was purchased from the Alko store.

So, drinking wine or beer in Finland is quite expensive compared to the United States and the inventory is quite different.  However, if you want to splurge you can get very good non US stuff from your local Alko store or favorite restaurant.  Just remember to save your cash for a special occasion.  :)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Cross-country versus downhill skiing

Took entire family out for cross-country skiing this past weekend in Espoo.  We ventured down to the only currently open cross-country ski track which is located near Lake Bodom in Espoo.  The place was absolutely packed with various skiers and families just out to frolic in the snow and sled down the hills.   Even though we are all still just getting our feet wet, we had a great time and look forward to many more outdoor adventures on skis.  Being a California native, I am really only used to downhill skiing and let me tell you, cross-country and downhill skiing are worlds apart.  They each have their pros and cons, but I would have to say that for all around nature and exercise, cross-country skiing is the king.   With downhill skiing you wear a very heavy and tightly locked ski boot and it clicks into your binding, but can easily pop out if necessary for safety.  Also, downhill skis are much wider than the cross country version.  Cross-country uses smaller boots which are essentially as comfortable as hiking shoes, but they also have a small metal bar in the front which locks into your ski.  The downside is that cross country boots do not release when you fall, they need to be clicked out by pushing a button on the binding.

Which one is better to actually do?  This is all a matter of personal preference of course.  But if you are an endurance sports nut like myself (swimming, triathlon, running, hiking), then cross country would be your preference.   Don't get me wrong downhill skiing is very fun, but it is mainly about getting to the top of the hill and flying down as fast as you can.  It can be quite exhilarating and thrilling when you are flying down the hill at breakneck speeds, but there is always that fear factor of crashing which happens to the best of us.  Falling down a hill at extreme speeds is no laughing matter.  With cross country skiing, it can be more of an escape to the nature, like hiking with skis on. Cross-country skiing is typically done in little tracks that are made in the snow, but you could also just ski over the smooth snow.  With cross country skiing you essentially shuffle your legs and arms simultaneously back and forth over the flat surface to move forward and you "walk" up steep hills with the skis in a V position.  Screw the chairlifts, time to walk up those hills, baby!  If you have never tried cross-country, it is one hell of a workout.  I honestly cannot think of a better way to get in all around shape than spending a few hours a week on cross-country skis.  You are getting a leg, arm and even stomach workouts all in one. Technically there are 2 distinct types of cross-country skiing now, the classic type (shuffle motion) and the skating (like ice skating on skis) type of skis.  I wanted to do both, but then I found that one needs to purchase additional equipment (boots, bindings, skis) for each one.  Ouch!  One equipment investment at a time I guess.  What's nice is that after the initial equipment investment, you never need to pay to use the many parks that offer cross-country ski tracks in Finland.

When you live in a Nordic country like Finland, there are many places to cross-country ski, assuming the snowfall has been good.  We supposedly have over 30 areas in our city of Espoo alone for skiing.  It is great to see so many Finns out and about enjoying the nature and getting their exercise via cross-country skiing.  It must be in their blood, as I even noticed that they are encouraging skiing during recess at my 5 year old son's school. So grab your skis and go out and enjoy the nature.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Finnish rock/metal bands

Before I moved to Finland, I had listened to certain Finnish rock bands, but there weren't that many who had made a splash on the international scene.  However, after living here for a while, I realized that Finns are seriously into rock and heavy metal and there are many bands in the music scene.   Also, major rock bands do not hesitate to come play in Finland.  Black Sabbath sold out their upcoming May concert in 5 minutes and the Red Hot Chili Peppers also sold out their upcoming August concert.

These are my Top 10 of Finnish rock/metal bands.  Apocalyptica is by far my favorite on the list. 

1. Apocalyptica - They made a career playing heavy metal through their Cellos

2. Nightwish - Finnish operatic metal at it's finest

3. Children of Bodom - Some serious thrash metal, but these guys can play

4. H.I.M. - They had a trendy international single on the radio 

5.   Von Hertzen Brothers - Not really known on the international scene, but these Finnish progressive rockers are very talented.

6.  Lordi - Lordi is to Finland as GWAR is to the US.  Dress up like monsters and rock out.  :)

7. Stratovarius - I just discovered them on the radio.  Cool Finnish progressive metal.

8.  Sonata Arctica - More progressive metal from the land of the midnight sun

9.  Michael Monroe - Formerly of glam metal band Hanoi Rocks, he is probably the most well known rocker in Finland.

10. Korpiklaani - It's all about partying and having fun with Korpiklaani.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Winter has finally arrived!

I will keep this post short and sweet.  After several weeks of being teased with small flakes of snow and lots of rain, we finally received a decent amount of fresh, fluffy, white powder in Espoo, Finland.  It seems in the dark depths of Winter, nothing is better for a Finn's psyche than a beautiful covering of fresh snow to invigorate the soul and lighten up the day.  This past weekend we received about 2 to 3 inches of snow and it is continuing to fall to the ground.  The kids are very excited and have grabbed their sleds and headed to the hills, cross country skiers are out and about and the snowmen are being built.

Espoo, Finland

The tendinous part of the mind, so to speak, is more developed in winter; the fleshy, in summer.  I should say winter had given the bone and sinew to literature, summer the tissues and the blood.  ~John Burroughs

Winter came down to our home one night
Quietly pirouetting in on silvery-toed slippers of snow,
And we, we were children once again.
~Bill Morgan, Jr.

Espoo, Finland

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Censorship and nudity in Finland

Did the title of this post grab your attention?  :)  I do find this subject very interesting because Finland is for the most part an "Americanized" Western country, but when it comes to censorship and nudity Finland and United States are very different.  The other day I was driving my children to school around 9am in the morning and we were listening to the radio station as usual, when I was greeted with one F bomb after another from this somewhat popular song that has been in rotation on the popular local radio stations.  The title of this particular one was called "Loca People" by Sak Noel.  However, one profanity laced song wasn't the point I was trying to make. Any song that has profanity and vulgarity will most likely not be censored by the local radio stations.  Also, the DJ's will not be beeped out for saying an occasional swear word. I kind of have mixed feelings on this one.  I am not one who wants to subject my kids to relentless f bombs, but on the other side of the coin, kids are smart and if something is "beeped" out or they are curious about something they will most likely find out about it sooner or later.  Since these Finnish children are exposed too less censorship at an early age, it probably becomes less and less mysterious to them and just a part of life.

Nudity is an entirely different subject where Finland and most likely the rest of Europe is different from the US.  In the United States it seems that violence is more accepted in society than nudity.  This is pretty clear judging by the films we release and the fact that violence is in full force and nudity (even when graceful) is not as accepted or only in certain types of films.  TV programs in Finland are not censored and they even run rated R films without any form of censorship.  These films are also broadcast as early as 7 or 8pm, not just reserved for late night.  I was amazed a few years ago to see a Finnish cell phone commercial where these guys were running around with their  "junk" hanging out. :) Yes, no joke, they were completed exposed in this commercial.  Imagine this in the US where we had Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction (otherwise known as "Boobgate") experience several years ago at the Super Bowl halftime show.  They actually changed the rules on viewing live television (now it is delayed several seconds) because of one breast being exposed.  I think US thinks of itself as a puritanical society, but the irony is that it is extremely violent at the same time.  Nudity is just more accepted in Finland.  This country invented the Sauna and when I talk about Sauna it should be known that it is regarded in Finland as a family experience.  Most families with young children have Sauna day on Saturdays where the entire family uses their Sauna and then just relaxes.  In US there might be some stigma around the Sauna being more of a place for nudity and sex which is far from the truth.

I do have one experience to share that made even me shake my head in disbelief.  It was one of those "It would never happen in US" thoughts.  So, I have been swimming in various indoor swimming halls since I moved to Finland.  They are all very nice and have extensive shower and Sauna facilities.  However, there is one big catch.  :)  The cleaning lady will come into the men's shower room at all times during the day to mop and clean up.  Yes, it could be right smack in the middle of a busy Saturday afternoon and the cleaning lady comes to clean the entire the shower room with 9 or 10 men taking their showers and no one blinks an eye!  I was more surprised that no one cared rather than by the fact that the lady just casually walks in the the room.  This is not a perverted type of thing, the lady is simply minding her own business.  She is not there to gawk, just to do her job and leave.  I was a bit uncomfortable at first, and would quickly run to my towel.  But I guess "When in Rome, do as Roman do" so they say.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Book Review - The Finnish Miracle

I just finished reading "The Finnish Miracle" by Canadian transplant Andre Noel Chaker.  He brings to light the great successes that Finland has achieved over the years.  A few recent international benchmarks as noted in the book include.

  • The best country in the world : Newsweek Magazine 2010
  • Best basic education in the world: PISA 2003, 2006
  • Happiest country in the world: (along with Denmark): Gallup World Poll 2010
  • Least corrupt country in the world: Transparency International 2007 (Always in the top 10 since then)
  • Top ten most-competitive country in the world: World Economic Forum 2000-2011
Those are pretty amazing in my opinion, and one wonders what created these great successes in this small nation.  Andre goes into great detail to explain how the Finns have persevered over time in their history after many hardships and difficult events. They endured many wars with Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union,  harsh climate and economic hardships.  Finnish strengths include: solution orientation, compliance, closeness to nature, a good  education system and teachers, effective and sustainable development, anti-corruption, competitiveness, security, transparency, equality, low hierarchies, honesty and sisu.   "Sisu" means a tough and relentless will power and a stubborn, taciturn nature.  In fact he dedicates an entire chapter to explain what he calls the different forms of sisu.  Sisu and success, sisu at war, sisu in business, sisu in sports and the bad sisu. Yes, that is correct, even sisu has a dark, ugly side. 

What I really enjoyed about reading this book is that it is very impartial and did it's best to explain both sides of the coin whether good and bad, but overall it gave me many insights into the character of a Finn and what has made this small nation so successful in the world.  Over the last 15 or so years I have read plenty of books on Finland, but this might have been the most thoughtful and well written. It went into great detail and gave some interesting examples.  I think Andre, having lived in this country for 20 years has done an excellent job giving one deep and clear insights into the culture and the people.  I would highly recommend this book.