Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Christmas Markets in Regensburg (or, how I convinced Mike to go on a weekend long shopping trip!)

Be prepared, this is a long one, but it comes with pictures!

When Mike and I started talking about how to spend our Christmas holiday, one of his ideas was to take a German river cruise.  When I started to explore options, they were all based on going to the Christmas Markets of various German towns and cities along the Danube or Rhine.  Well, it seems like we weren’t the only ones with that idea, and everyone else had it about six months before we did.  As a result, the ones we were interested in were already sold out, but that idea provided the inspiration for our November trip.

We left Helsinki on Friday night bound for Regensburg, Germany, about 125 kilometers northeast of Munich.  At the airport, we watched a man get in an argument with the Lufthansa ticket counter woman, and then her supervisor.  We both just stood there and talked about why you would ever argue with them.  At the end of the day, you don’t get to fly if you make them mad.  And guess what, the guy and his too heavy suitcase stayed in Helsinki.  The Germans take their luggage weight VERY seriously!

After arriving in Munich, we met our driver and passed a Starbucks.  I have been dying for a decaf, non-fat, toffee nut latte for ages.  Since we were already headed to the car and it was late enough, I figured I’d just have one at the airport on the way back to Helsinki.  Lesson learned – get your Starbucks when you can get it.  Just because there are several in most large US airports, there aren’t in most European airports.  Never to see that Starbucks again (wahhh!).  We loaded up our luggage in our Mercedes Benz station wagon and were on our way with the world’s most chatty German driver. 

We soon hopped on the Autobahn and were whizzing along.  My clue that it was the Autobahn (because it’s not like there is a sign that says, “Welcome to the Autobahn”)?  The Porsche that blew by us like we were parked at the mall.  Sheesh.  Apparently, those Porsches can go kinda fast.  It was dark, but we got a play by play of what we were passing from the driver.  Lots of hops, not to be confused with hogs.  Good thing Mike can interpret heavily accented English for me.  I was much more focused on watching the odometer tick further and further up.  Our top speed that I saw was 190 kilometers per hour (kph).  It’s not quite a 2:1 ratio between kph and miles per hour, but I knew we were going more than 100 mph.  When I looked it up after we got to the hotel, it was 118 mph.  Fastest I have ever gone, and something tells me that the Mercedes Benz station wagon goes a little faster than the old Ford Pinto station wagon we had when I was a kid.  The drive explained we could have gone faster, but the weather, the nighttime, and the winter tires all have to be taken into consideration. It would be interesting to do it in ideal driving conditions!

Upon arriving into Regensburg, we got a little mini-tour.  Regensburg is a UNESCO World Heritage city and one of the oldest and best preserved medieval cities in Germany.   It’s a neat little city to see by night and the most impressive structure is the Regensburg Cathedral.  It was just so beautiful lit up at night.  

 This bridge was built in the 1100s and is still in use as a foot bridge today.
By the time we got to the hotel, it was 11:00 and we were ready for dinner.  Sidewalks roll-up pretty early in this little town, so it was a good thing there was a McDonald’s right across the street.  We were able to kill two birds with one stone – have dinner, and continue Mike’s quest to eat at a McDonald’s in each country we visit. I do have to say, the food was consistent at this one, there were no disgusting fly issue (see previous post about McDonald’s in Espoo) and this one had a separate counter area called the McCafe.  They made all sorts of fancy coffee drinks, served different kinds of bagel sandwiches, and had lots of pastries from which to choose.  Like a Starbucks inside of a McDonald’s.  But, not.

We had decided on Saturday that we wanted to take a boat ride on the Danube.  After trying to figure out where to go, we were a bit stymied because the boat rides actually stop in October, run during the Christmas Market season, and then don’t start again til Spring.  It was not easy to figure out where we should be and the fact that I had made a serious error in judgment when selecting my shoes for the day did not help.  We eventually gave up and my prince of a husband took my shoes from me while I had a cup of tea, he went back to the hotel and exchanged them for my much more practical new snow boots.  After I was re-shod, we started off for our first Christmas Market, the Lucreziamarkt.  On the way, we saw a tourist info office and we’re able to get info about the boat ride.  Yeah!

 Mike in front of part of the the Lucreziamarkt.  The cathedral is in the background.

We wandered around the Lucreziamarkt and saw the different crafts and treats that were available.  A few items caught our eye for family gifts and I managed to pick up a gift for myself !  

This carousel was made from all sorts of branches and stumps.  The young woman in the little stand in the back was pedaling it to make it turn.  I told Mike he can make me one :)
We had lunch reservations for late in the afternoon, so we needed a snack.  After perusing the choices, we settled on a baumstriezelei, which is traditional Hungarian baked sweet bread.  It was gooooood.  Here’s a recipe if you want to make baumstriezelei at home

The baumstriezelei oven where the dough rotates on rolling pin sized skewers.

Next was the boat trip where we took a ride up the Danube to Walhalla.  Walhalla is a museum in honor of German scientists, politicians, artists, etc.  A German Hall of Fame, so to speak.  The actual building looks like the Parthenon in Athens.  The boat does not stop at Walhalla, but just gives you a view from the river.  
 Walhalla.  It's 350 steps to get into the museum.

 Our boat and view of the Danube.  It was 3:30 and getting dark.

After the boat ride, we had a late lunch at Wurstkuchl.  Wurstkuchl has been serving sausage for hundreds of years in this location.  We really enjoyed our traditional German sausage and Mike had a traditional German beer to go with it.  I had Orangina.  Yeah, Orangina.  

 Traditionally, you eat outside on the picnic tables, but since it was so cold, we . . .

ate inside in the cafe.

Later in the evening, we went to the main market in the city, which is on the main square of Regensburg.  The place was jam packed.  So many people standing around drinking guhlwein, which is a spiced red wine, eating sausage, and talking with friends and family.  You literally had to push and shove to get through.  We visited all of the stalls looking for the ideal Christmas decoration and gifts and really soaked up the atmosphere.  Everyone was having such a good time and it was quite infectious.  It may be Black Friday in the U.S. that signifies the start of the season, but I think the first weekend of the Christmas Markets starts it in Germany.  After spending almost two hours here, we went for dinner at a restaurant recommended to us by a Brit who lives in Regensburg that we met on the boat ride.

 Decorations around the square.

One of the stalls at the market.  We bought some small star lights here.

And guess what we had for dinner!  More sausage!  This time, it was a little sausage platter with different kinds of sausage to taste, along with a big soft pretzel.  I could only eat so much of that sausage, and by the time we finished dinner, I was sausaged-out!

For those of you who know me well, hold on to your seats, as our first activity on Sunday will probably surprise you.  We went to Mass.  The big, beautiful cathedral is a Catholic church dedicated to St. Peter and home to the Regensburg Boys Choir.  I had seen several references on the internet that the Regensburg Boys Choir is second only to the Vienna Boys Choir (no idea where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir fits into the ranking) and I really wanted to hear them sing. 

We walked into the church about 9:55 and realized that this is the place to be on Sunday mornings if you’re older than about 60.  Finding a seat was very difficult and though we wound up near the front, we were directly behind a stone column that was at least 15 feet in diameter.  We had a great view of – stone.  At this point, we still did not know the denomination of the church, though we were guessing Catholic.  Once the service started, keeping in mind it was in German, the good Catholic that was with me recognized the order to the service.  Yep, Catholic.  Then the boys started singing. When the priest had been speaking, he had been using a microphone.  The boys had no microphones, but the way their voices carried throughout this immense cathedral was amazing.  It was so beautiful.  Sometimes they were accompanied by an organ, and sometimes it was just their signing.  

Picture from Saturday evening.  My photos don't do the cathedral any justice!

Luckily, the man at the end of the pew left pretty early in the service, so I was able to easily enter and exit the pew and as a result, able to see some of the choir.  Now, if I were in a church in the US, of course I wouldn’t get up and down during a service, but people were coming and going pretty regularly.  Some were probably tourists, but others seemed to be parishioners, so I felt like I could get up to see what I could see.  One thing I noticed, the boys were as cold as all of us and many of them were actually wearing gloves (everyone in the church, with the exception of the priests, was bundled up in coat, gloves, and even some in hats). 

I also noticed that no hymnals or bibles were provided, but some people did BYO.  I thought that was interesting.  Mike was the one who noticed the average age of the attendees and this matched what the woman on the boat had told us.  Young people are leaving the churches in Germany in droves.  Similar situation in Finland.  As I understand it, both countries require their residents to tithe X Euros as part of their annual tax filings and the only way to not complete the tithe is to renounce your membership.  I wonder if that has anything to do with it.           

When it was time for communion and everyone moved forward (a lot less organized than what I had seen the times I went to St. Anthony’s in CG), we made our graceful exit.  There was actually an area roped off in the back for tourists who were just coming and going during the Mass.  I am really glad that we went in and listened to the full Mass (or almost full Mass) and didn’t just pop in for a few minutes.  Mike is right, there is always something peaceful about Mass, even when you don’t know exactly what is being said.

From there, it was back to the hustle and bustle of the Christmas markets.  Our third and final market was the Romantic Market at the Thurns and Taxis Palace.  This palace is larger than Buckingham Palace, if you can believe that.  I spent a few minutes reading their website, and am still not sure what they are the royalty of.  As far as I can tell, it’s because they created international postal service.  I am sure that isn’t exactly right, but I like to now think of them as the Prince and Princess of the Post Office!

 The Romantic Market at the Thurns and Taxis Palace.

This market was so beautiful.  I really wish we had come through here on Saturday night to see how it looked in the dark with all of the holiday lights.  We found a few more gifts and enjoyed lunch.  Since we swore off sausage by this point, I had a bread bowl of potato soup.  We did have another treat since there was a vendor selling crepes.  A little crepe with Nutella and banana.  Made me feel like I was in Paris!  We continued the hunt for the perfect Christmas decoration, but to no avail.  By this time, it was really cold and one of us was freezing.  This is the one of us who hasn’t bought a new winter coat with a temperature rating of -10F, snow boots, and thermal gloves because she commutes on public transportation many days!  

The really bright light on my coat is my reflector.  All good Finns wear a reflector this time of year so the cars can more easily see you.  Looks like it works!

We headed back to the main market to buy some Christmas decorations that we had our eye on and then made our way back to the hotel. We stopped at McDonald’s to get a hot drink, since literally everything in town was closed and Mike was done with the guhlwein.  At the hotel, we repacked our suitcases (we had strategically packed a big one and brought an empty smaller one) with our goodies and waited for our car back to Munich.  Our driver appeared right on time with her big Mercedes Benz van.  She wasn’t nearly the lead foot of our Friday night driver so no new top speed to report.

We ate dinner at the airport and caught our flight home.  As we were getting ready to pull out from the gate, the pilot came on and said since it had started to snow, we would need to be de-iced out on the runway. For some reason, at the Munich airport, de-icing occurs out on the runway and not at your gate.  You taxi for a ways and pull up to this large apparatus where they spray the de-icing stuff and then you are on your way.  About 20 minutes after take-off, the pilot came on and told us we were really lucky.  We were the last flight to take-off from our runway, which was now closed because of the snow.  The planes were starting to back up for the single run way and things were now delayed.  With our tailwind, we even had a nice early arrival back to Helsinki.  Overall, a great weekend!       

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Giving Thanks

Happy Thanksgiving to all of our American family and friends!  Mike and I have so much to be thankful for this year.  As many of you know, we also celebrated our wedding anniversary on Monday, and as we got engaged on Thanksgiving day three years ago, this time of year is extra special to us.  During our anniversary dinner on Monday night, we did a bit of a year in review.  We continue to marvel at what a year we have had.  We have had some tremendous highs, and unfortunately, a few lows.  During our "sunlamp" time this morning, we talked about how much we have to be thankful for, and our toast this evening (with non-alcoholic champagne, of course!) focused on the same.

As thoughts of Thanksgiving crossed my mind in the last week or so, I have to admit that I was a bit melancholy about the day.  We would both be spending it working, and not with our families or in our own home cooking up a storm.  We had already planned to spend the holiday in South Carolina with Mike's dad, so that plan obviously had to change.  Some new friends here are throwing a big Thanksgiving celebration on Saturday, but we are flying to Germany tomorrow, so will miss the gathering.  It seems as though everyone on Facebook is very excited to be spending the day with loved ones and having an incredible feast.  This contributed to the feeling of melancholy and made me a bit green, I must admit.

As the day progressed, it got better, though!  I had a lovely lunch with a friend and her new daughter.  Mike and I had a nice time cooking our modified Thanksgiving feast together, we had a few of our favorites for dinner, and less dishes than ever before (can't beat that!).  Mike set a beautiful table with our china and silver, and it felt like home.  It was only as we were cleaning up that I realized I forgot to make the Stove Top stuffing I had managed to get my hands on!!  I'm blaming that on pregnancy brain!

Without further ado, here's what our first Helsinki Thanksgiving dinner looked like.  As I said, it was a modified feast.  We had herb marinated chicken (yep, chicken, I had been told finding turkey is very difficult.  Someone told me last night that you can get it at Stockmann.  I should have known.), my mom's famous sweet potatoes and baked apples (my favorite!), green bean casserole (I have never made it before, but how easy is that??!!  We modified here because Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup is very, very hard to find), and crescent rolls (one of Mike's favorites).  No pumpkin pie since we're gone this weekend and figure we'll find plenty of sweet treats in Germany. 

 Mike pouring our "champagne" to celebrate the holiday.

 Our modified Thanksgiving feast (who needs Stove Top?!).

Please note the flowers in the background.  I took a flower arranging class last night that was put on by the American Women's Club.  I have never done anything like that before.  And though the florist didn't love what I put together, I did, and that's what matters!

 My first floral arrangement.  Apparently, Martha has nothing to worry about!

And with that, we wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving from Helsinki!  Enjoy your friends, family, food, the parade on TV, Cowboys football, and whatever else you do to make the day special!  We enjoyed our day and evening here and are most thankful for the lives we have and those that are in it!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Finnish Father’s Day or Oh Boy, Oh Boy, Oh Boy!

The news has been slowly making its way over the phone lines and the interwebs, but for those of you we haven’t connected with, we’re pleased to let everyone know that we’re expecting a baby boy!  At least, according to the note we received from the doctor, “Male parts were seen.”  I had an unexpected ultrasound a few weeks ago and Mike was not able to attend.  The doctor was able to see the baby’s sex and I asked that instead of telling me, he writes it down on a piece of paper. It seemed like he wrote forever, not just a 3 or 4 letter word.  And sure enough, when Mike and I opened the paper at home that evening “Male parts were seen.”

Today is Finnish Father’s Day.  Yesterday, in order to prepare us to be a mother and father (Finnish or American), we attended birthing class in English.  We are a little on the early side, but considering the next class is scheduled for the day AFTER I am due, we figured we should probably attend, now!  The class was like a mini-United Nations meeting, if the UN was comprised of a bunch of preggy ladies!  I was expecting a bunch of Americans and Brits.  I could not have been more wrong.  Of the 25 people (one husband couldn’t attend), the following countries were represented (and remember, they all spoke English):

US – there were a total of 4 of us, making us the largest country population. Go Team America!!

I may be missing one or two.  It was really interesting to see how similar many people’s thoughts and feelings towards pregnancy and giving birth are, regardless of from where you come.

We covered a number of topics including birthing positions, what to take and when to go to the hospital (apparently, hospital food is pretty bad no matter in what country you give birth), and both pharmacological and non-pharmacological approaches to pain relief.  The class was given at a yoga studio by two midwives.  Though they discussed the pharmacological approaches, they are definitely pro-skipping the drugs and pro-breastfeeding.  Not militant about either, but you knew where they stood.  I am pro getting an epidural next week if it means it will hurt less in March!!

Speaking as the voice of non-authority on this topic, some of the differences of giving birth here compared to the US, a few I have mentioned before:

1)  The person who delivers the baby is someone you have not met.  You get assigned a midwife when you show up for delivery.  We also found out yesterday that shift changes every eight hours, so the odds of having two or three different midwives are probably pretty good.  As a result, Mike and I are considering using a doula.  You typically meet with a doula a couple of times before the birth to develop the birth plan, the doula then attends the birth, and then also does some follow-up care.  I heard a great explanation for a doula from a friend.  She’s focused on “the belly button up” while the doctor (or midwife) is focused on “the belly button down”.  I feel like using a doula here would allow us to have someone we have 1) met before and established a relationship with, and 2) someone advocating on my/our behalf in Finnish.  At the end of the day, the midwives all speak some level of English and we’ll tell them when we arrive we need a strong English speaker, but I think having someone there who is working for (and paid by) us who speaks the language will be a plus.  If you want to learn more about doulas, especially in the US, read here.  I have several friends who have used doulas in the US and have been very happy with their experiences.

2)  They strongly encourage you to stay out of the bed.  Walking, sitting on or leaning over an exercise ball, sitting on a horseshoe shaped stool, standing, sitting in a bath tub, etc., all seem to be very much encouraged.  It was explained to us that they encourage this for two reasons; the first is that you may as well let gravity help pull the baby down, and the second, if you are lying down on your back, your tail bone is compressed.  By being in an upright position, your tail bone is able to expand back (which it was made to do) and can give you at least another two centimeters of space.

3)  The midwives told us to eat a good meal before coming to the hospital and to bring our own food.  And of course, there is a microwave for your use!  This one really surprised me, so much so that I asked a question confirming it.  My thought, and I could be totally wrong on this, is that you don’t eat a lot in the U.S. in case you end up having a c-section.  Well, in Finland, last year 60,000 babies were born.  Only 16%, so we’re talking less than 10,000, were born via c-section.  The percentage in the US is about exactly double.  The expectation is that you won’t have a c-section, so you don’t need to worry about food and aesthesia issues, and you need your strength, so eat up.  I wonder if it will finally be OK to eat soft cheese, deli meat, Diet Coke, and some wine, then??!!  Just to round out the c-section stats, the 16% is comprised of 6% that are planned, 9% that are urgent, and 1% that are emergency.

4)  The use of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) is very popular here, with 49% of last year’s birthing moms using it.  It is used as the first round of painkiller instead of any type of intravenous pain killer.  It is key to know when your contraction is going to start because you need to take it 30 – 45 seconds before it happens.  If you wait until the contraction starts, too late.  In the US, because often times you get an IV with painkiller in it (e.g., Demerol), you don’t have to manage this as much.  I think the IV has to be MUCH easier. 

5)  The epidurals here are much weaker than the US.  They are meant to ease the pain, but the expectation is that you are still able to have use of your legs and move around a bit (e.g., in order to be in the upright sitting positions).

One of the midwives did tell us that if you are into technology, Finland is the place to have a baby!  I knew that about cell phones, didn’t know it about births.  As a result, 45% of women received an epidural, and at the hospital we will be going to which is affiliated with the University and the medical school, the rate is even higher.  The number in the US seems to be somewhere in the 60% - 70% range.

They then had a couple come to speak to us who had participated in the class earlier this year and now have a 6 month old son.  They are a younger couple and she is from Finland and he is from the US.  She did the birth without the use of any pain medication and described it as being the most wonderful experience.  She told us that in the month or two leading up to her labor, she would go to a park and hug the trees (a literal "tree hugger"!) and think about their growth.  And think about the leaves and flowers growing and beginning anew in the spring.  For those of you who know me well, you know my eyes were about rolling to the back of my head, at this point.  She proceeded to tell us about the birth and that after they were home for a week, she saw the midwife and said she was worried because her baby never cried and she thought there was a problem.  By this time, I was waiting to hear about the unicorns and rainbows that were flying out of her you know where!!  Apparently, she had the perfect birth, has the most perfect baby, and is even lucky enough to have the world’s two most perfect cats.  They are so happy and filled with joy, they don’t even want to go out together for dinner without their son.  Gag me.  Call me jaded, call me a woman with too many friends who have already given birth and are raising kids, call me whatever you want, but don’t look for unicorns and rainbows here, I think I am a bit more of a realist!

Image courtesy of Google Images, but now you know what I was expecting!  Look, even a Finnish mushroom in the foreground!

Overall, the class was really interesting and we both got a lot out of it.  We wish there was more face to face education available here, but  in lieu of that, we have books on the way from Amazon.co.uk, we have DVDs, and we have friends who have lots of experience they are willing to share.  We’ll be OK or even better.

ETA:  There have been a few requests from US friends and family to see the "bump."  Here are some recent pictures.

November 7, 2010
November 13, 2010

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Sun Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

When Mike and I came to Helsinki on our house hunting trip in June, we talked to a lot of people about what it is like to live here weather-wise.  The Finns LIVE for summer.  They love the long, long days, the comfortable temperatures (it never gets much above 80), and spending time outside.  Supposedly, summer makes up for the time we are in now.  November.  Hands down, bar none, and without a doubt, every Finn I have asked says November is the worst month here. 

Though the days are getting noticeably shorter, today’s sunrise was at 7:48 and sunset is at 4:19, the sun never really shines.  It’s all cloudy and gray.  And depressing.  This period will last for many, many weeks. We hope that December brings snow, crazy I know, but snow means that what little light we have will be reflected on the ground, too.  Not just light from above, but light from below.  We will need all of the light that we can get.

This need for light brings us to our latest purchase.  A sun lamp.  Each morning, we get up 30 minutes early in order to have time to sit in front of our lamp.  This is all in order to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  SAD is a form of depression that’s symptoms can include a lack of energy, a desire to sleep too much, withdrawal from friends and family, and overeating, especially carbs. It is thought that SAD is caused by the eye’s retina not getting enough sunlight.  Sunshine impacts the amount of serotonin and melatonin in the body which impacts your sleep and mood levels. 

One of the suggested ways to prevent SAD is by sitting in front of a high powered lamp, for between 30 minutes and 2 hours a day.  It is suggested to do it between 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. in order to not mess up your night time sleep.  Since both Mike and I work, and aren’t always home by 6:00 p.m., this means we start our day 30 minutes earlier than we had.  We are trying to make it quality time.  We eat breakfast together, read the newspaper (my Mom has been sending me sections of the Sunday NY Times.  Love!!), and just chat.  With Mike gone to the U.S. this week, my mornings have definitely been lonelier.  

 This is our sun lamp sitting on our dining table. 

 One of the other issues related to the lack of sun is a potential vitamin D deficiency.  I have been hearing about this a lot in the U.S for 6 months or so.  I have read that some think it is because we all wear so much sunscreen these days.  I am not sure if that is true or not, but the cause in Finland is no sunshine, not too much sunscreen.  In order to combat this one, a vitamin supplement is needed.  For us, it’s not a big deal.  The pre-natal vitamin (me) and the daily multi-vitamin (Mike) that we have been taking provide enough vitamin D.  For babies, it is an entirely different story.  Babies have to take a vitamin D supplement, as well, even if their mom is taking one and breastfeeding.  There isn’t enough vitamin D for them to share.  This supplement is required for about 6 months a year and the time to start taking it is now. 

One of my new friends here happens to be from Mesa, Arizona.  And though she is a Sun Devil, we forgive her for that (Hi, Sarah!)!  Sarah is married to a Finn and has had both of her little boys while living here.  Sarah is a professional photographer and keeps her own blog.  Additionally, she wrote a guest post on another blog that is a beautiful description of this time, and what we are all dealing with.  Her post is quite eloquent, much more so than this one, and I highly suggest you read it.  My friends in the northeast may be able to relate a little more to what Sarah writes and what we are dealing with.  My friends in Arizona and California, otherwise knows as the “Sunshine State”, welcome to our world.  Think of me when you’re complaining because the high is “only” 62 degrees and a cloud or two passes over and “blocks your sun!”

Wish us luck and if you are looking for us in the early morning hours, we’ll be in front of our sun lamp! 

 Here's the lamp on (taken at the same time as the prior picture) to give you an idea of its brightness.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I Get By with a Little Help from the Finns

So, it’s not all traveling, fun, and games here in Helsinki.  There’s actual life living occurring and lots of the days have components that are hard.  Someone recently said to me, it takes a year to just figure it all out.  If it takes a year, I’ve got 10 more months to go.  Whew boy!

Anytime I try to accomplish something new, it takes a lot of help.  Checking the internet, asking friends who have “been there, done that”, and asking random strangers.  As an example, a few weeks ago, I went to pick up our Murano that had to have some “chanegments” done on it to meet Finnish auto standards.  (The word “changements” was used by someone to describe the lights and other modifications we would need for import and I just loved it.)  Let me tell you what I had to do and what kind of help I needed (and, for fun, let’s count those times!). . .

First, I had to check the bus schedule on the website (one).  That is pretty easy as the website has a selection for English.  Good thing, too, because we use it ALL THE TIME.  When the website isn’t in English, we use Google Translate.  It’s a good tool, but can only get you so far in the translation.  You get the gist of it, but not the exact meaning.  You also have to type everything in, so if it’s a four page letter from the television tax people, you give up and take it to work for someone to read and summarize for you!

I walked to the bus terminal and found what I thought was my bus.  No one was there and the door was closed.  Eventually the driver came and when I boarded, I confirmed with him (two) that this was the bus headed my way.  After taking a tram the wrong way, I learned how to figure it out on the trams.  If the bus is leaving from a terminal, I still have no idea how you would know. 

Riding the bus, I realize that they do not list the upcoming stops like the trams do.  And, since the bus only stops if someone dings the bell to exit, or if someone flags the bus down at a stop, you can pass stops, so counting stops doesn’t work.  Panic call to Mike (three),“The bus doesn’t list the stops, how do I know when my stop is coming?”  (Mike has taken the bus a lot more than I; it’s not that he is smarter than me!!)  Mike’s response, “Oh yeah, it doesn’t.  You just have to kind of watch for it.  You can also try to track it on your GPS.”  Great.  He also describes what the stop looks like since he had taken the bus home from there two days prior.  A woman overhears me and comes to my seat.  An American (four)!  She asks me where I am going, but she has no idea where this is and she’s getting off soon.  She tells me to watch the bus stop signs on the side of the road closely and that I can also go up and ask the driver to signal me for my stop.  Please note, reaching out unasked to offer assistance is typical American behavior and NOT typical Finnish behavior!

As we are traveling along and making most of the stops, I know that I am getting close.  At this point, the driver is making eye contact with me in his mirror (not in a weird way!) and I can tell he knows that I am not exactly sure where I am going.  In fact, on the stop before mine, I start to gather my things and see him in the mirror shake his head to indicate it’s not my stop.  For the next stop, he nods and I get off.  (I’ve already counted him, so I won’t count him again.  Bonus points, though, for extra helpful bus driver!).  Unfortunately, Mike’s description wasn’t accurate for me.  The bus stop going towards our apartment was about 500 yards past where I got off, so his landmarks didn’t make sense to me.  

I start walking towards the car service station and realize that I will not be able to cross this six lane highway if I continue in the same direction.  I turn around, go back to a stop light and cross.  As I am walking, I then realize that literally, the sidewalk ends well before my destination. Here comes another couple (I’ll count them as five).  First, I ask them if they speak English.  I usually try to do that thinking I am being polite.  I just don’t want to assume everyone speaks English even through most do.  I have no idea if people think I am an idiot for asking, but whatever.  They speak English and tell me that the sidewalk connects to another sidewalk that I can’t see (up over a hill and around a corner) and that I will be able to get to the station.

Once I am at the station, since I have been there before, I know what to do.  I do need some assistance there, but I don’t think it’s any different than if I had been at a comparable station in the U.S.  I get the car, input our home address into the GPS (six) and make my way home.  Driving by myself.  For the first time.  During rush hour.  I make it.   Miss a few GPS directions, but American Jack (our preferred voice, as opposed to American Jill) recalculates.

This may not sound like it was that difficult, but I am not an adventurer by nature.  I don’t like exploring on my own; I don’t like feeling lost.  It all just adds an additional bit of stress to each activity.  I use some adrenalin each time.  It makes me tired after I complete the task.  On the positive side, I am willing to ask anyone and everyone for help.  I’d rather ask 6 people for help than waste 15 minutes trying to figure it out on my own.  Next time, it will be easy to go there.  Unfortunately, I probably won’t need to go there again. 

This is one of the reasons why going to places like Ikea, and restaurants like the Hard Rock Cafe and McDonald’s are comforting.  You know how to do it.  You know what to expect.  It’s a lot easier.  And there are days you definitely want easier.  It may sound odd to you that those are things we do and enjoy on occasion, but when most days have an element of difficulty, you need some days with easy.  As I get to know some more of the Finnish places, they start to fall into the category of “easy”, too.  I guess it just takes 10 more months for them all to fall into that category!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

If You Want a Good Belgian Waffle, of course You Go to Copenhagen (???)

Currently, our goal for the rest of the year is to spend one weekend a month in a different European city.  We hit Paris in September and for October we’re checking the box with Copenhagen.  For being so close to Helsinki (less than an hour and a half by plane), there are so many differences.  I think a lot of people lump Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland into one Scandinavian bucket.  In actuality, Finland is not a Scandinavian country, while the other three are. All four are considered Baltic countries, though. 

We spent the weekend with friends Paula and Tom who are living in Stockholm.  It was fun to compare notes about what life is like in Stockholm compared to Helsinki, while also seeing what Copenhagen has to offer.  When we arrived on Friday night, the first thing Mike and I noticed at the train station was a Domino’s Pizza!  We definitely do not have that in Helsinki.  As we walked out the front door of the train station, we saw a 7-11.  I felt like we had landed in Los Angeles or Phoenix, not Copenhagen, Denmark!  We had a short walk to our hotel and passed the Hard Rock Café.  Guess what, we don’t have that in Helsinki, either! 

Our hotel was sooooo cool.  We stayed at the Radisson SAS Royal Hotel.  The hotel was completed in 1960 and designed by Arne Jacobsen.  In addition to being the architect of the hotel, he actually did the interior design of the hotel: everything from the egg chair, the swan chair, down to the cutlery used in the restaurant.  This hotel is the epitome of the Danish Modern design movement.  I was in love with it as Danish Modern is by far my most favorite era in design.  If I could have a house that is completely Danish Modern/mid-century modern, I would.  If you were to buy a new replica egg chair today, it would cost between $5,000 and $10,000.  At some point, in refurbishing the hotel in the last 50 years, the hotel got rid of all of the original chairs and brought in replicas.  Apparently, they have two left in a suite that is still decorated exactly as Jacobsen did it.  I can only imagine what the two chairs in the room are worth.

 The swan chairs are tan and in the foreground, the egg chairs are black and in the background. 

Mike and I were on our own for dinner and had already planned that we would eat at the Hard Rock Café.  I know it sounds like such an American tourist thing to do, but when you don’t get to eat American food, you take advantage of the opportunities to get.  You also do weird things like wander through 7-11s just to see what they have!  Let me tell you, those were the best dang nachos ever!  I managed to save room for about 1/3 of a hamburger and some French fries.  Great fries, OK burger.  Fries in Helsinki are never “done” enough, so it was awesome to have some good French fries!

 Mike enjoyed his share of the nachos, too!  (Note - and who has ever heard of  Jennifer Batten???)

On Saturday, we planned to meet our friends after breakfast.  We had breakfast on the 20th floor of the hotel and I was so surprised to see the coffee service that I have at home was the service they use!  This set was a gift from my grandmother and had previously belonged to her.  I had always admired it and a few years ago, she made it mine.  Of course, it’s Danish Modern (I get my design appreciation from her!) and was such a landmark piece when it was designed it is now on display in the MoMA in NYC.  I had never put two and two together that the hotel and the coffee set were designed by the same person.  Also at breakfast, we had the best Belgian Waffle ever.  And I mean EVER.  I don’t know what they did to them, but they were just a plate of waffle awesomeness! 

 Coffee service designed by Arne Jacobsen still used in the hotel today.
Once we met Paula and Tom, we walked through downtown to see the Parliament building as well as the Amalienborg Slot, the home of the Danish Royal family where there is also a small museum.  Slot means castle in Danish.  Another difference between Denmark and Sweden compared to Finland, we have no Royal family.  Finland has never had a monarchy, and as such, none of the traditional trappings like palaces, crown jewels, etc.  Seeing the museum and understanding a bit more about the Danish Royal family and their lineage was interesting.  

We had a lovely lunch along one of the canals and enjoyed catching up with each other.  Paula and Tom are having their own adventures in Stockholm and have been living there just a few weeks less than we have been in Helsinki.   

 It was so nice to sit outside under the warm sunshine without a cloud in the sky.

After lunch, we decided it was time for a brewery tour.  The Carlsberg brewing company is the fourth largest brewery group in the world with over 500 labels.  We walked through the old brewery (only a little bit of beer is actually brewed in the facility these days) and hit the tasting room.  My three companions got to taste several of Carlsberg’s brews, while I enjoyed Schweppes lemonade.  Good thing I don’t like the taste of beer, anyway!

 Carlsberg has the largest collection of beer bottles in the world, 19,556.

As it was late afternoon, the temperatures were starting to drop.  We went on to Tivoli Gardens, which is the world’s oldest amusement park.  Similar to other tourist attractions in the Nordics, Tivoli is not open year-round (see last post about Fiskars Village).  They are open in the summer, again the two weeks before Halloween, and then again around Christmas.  This period before Halloween was one of the reasons I had thought Copenhagen would be a good place to go.  They really do it up for Halloween by bringing in 15,000 pumpkins and decorating the park for the holiday.  Halloween is not really celebrated in Finland, so if we were going to see Halloween, this was our opportunity and the decorations in the park did not disappoint!

 A hay maze for the kids.

I didn't know the peacock was the official bird of Halloween!

 I 'm wearing two maternity coats and am still cold!  Good thing I have a down coat in my closet!

We enjoyed a nice Italian dinner and headed our separate ways for the night.  By this point, it was really, really cold.  For our short walk back to our hotel, my teeth chattered and I shivered the entire time.  Winter is coming.

 Jack's teeth were chattering so hard he lost the bottom row!

Once we reconvened in the morning (after having the world’s best Belgian waffle again!), we compared notes on how we finished our Saturday night.  Turns out, all four of us decided that “Grease” really is the word and had watched it on TV in our respective hotels.  Even though it was in English, it, of course, would not have been a problem for me if it were in Danish as I can recite most of the script and all of the songs verbatim.  Mike was thrilled. 

On Sunday, we visited the Danish Design Center which highlighted Danish design over the last 100 years or so.  I think most people would be shocked by how many everyday items they would recognize that they didn’t know were actually Danish in design.  I loved the museum and picked up a few items, including a book called “Designed for Kids,” that contains lots of things for kids utilizing cool design.

 On display at the DDC, more pieces from the same coffee set that were in the hotel and in my home.

After visiting the Design Center, we went on to the Rosenborg Slot, which was the castle used by the Danish Royal family in the 1600 – 1700s.  The grounds of the castle are beautiful and I imagine in the summers are packed with people. The crown jewels of the Danish monarchy are found here.  It was interesting to see the different rooms that were on view, as well as some of the artifacts.  I think my favorite room was a room used by King Christian IV that was entirely made of mirrors.  According to my Rick Steves guidebook, ol’ Chris IV was the Hugh Hefner of the era.  He used the mirrors on the floors to look up the skirts of the women and behind one set of mirrors is what we would call today a Murphy bed and behind another set of mirrors a staircase for secret entry and exit.  

 In the gardens of the Slot, I was happily surprised to see the red/orange leaves!  Not many, but I take what I can get!

After wrapping up our visit to the Slot, we again parted ways to make our way back to our respective adopted cities.  We had such a wonderful time seeing friends from home and can’t wait to see them again!  Mike and I took another walk through a 7-11, bought a few treats for the trip home and jealously eyed the Burger King and the KFC as we walked back to our hotel.  Please keep in mind, Domino’s, BK, KFC and 7-11 are not part of our everyday American life, in fact, I couldn’t tell you the last time I was in either a BK, KFC, or 7-11, but something about wanting what you can’t have makes life a bit tougher some days. 


We collected our luggage, hopped on our train to the airport, and our flight back to our “home.”  Copenhagen was a great weekend, and if you’re looking for a good Belgian waffle, have I got the place for you!!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Seeing the Ruska (Tracy’s translation: Leaf Peeping, literal translation: Seeing the Fall Colors)

On Sunday, Mike and I ventured out of the city to go leaf peeping and to see what we could see.  Ever since moving to Connecticut in 2004, fall has been my favorite season because of the explosion of fall colors.  It is one of my absolute favorite things in life.  We hoped to be able to continue the tradition while living here.  We had a successful trip, and are sticking with the theme of “things are different, but OK.”

We drove due west a little over an hour outside of Helsinki.  We probably passed at least 10 speed cameras on the way.  The use of speed cameras is very popular in this area, and since tickets come with a big fine, you really do have to pay attention to your speed.  Luckily, they do post a sign ahead of the camera, though I suspect if you are driving too fast, it may be too late by the time you see the sign.  Our GPS also notified us when we were approaching a camera.  Somehow, as the cameras are fixed to the roadside, Garmin knows where they are and even prompts us when we turn the GPS on to download the current speed camera locations from their website.  Now, that’s useful technology!

The first place I have ever seen "Moose Crossing" signs!  

An additional driving related item that is quite different here than home are the drunk driving laws.  To be considered impaired, it means you blow a .05 on a breathalyzer.  Basically, if you have more than one drink, you’re toast.  Well, when you think about it, how many times have you actually been pulled over and given a breathalyzer test?  Since we have been here, we went through a check point at the airport when a taxi was dropping us off and on our way to Fiskars Village we went through a checkpoint.  Just as you’d see at home, a couple of cops stopping each car that passes by the point.  They greet you, hand you a tube, and tell you to blow.  It was all in Finnish, so we assume that was what they said!  Luckily, as it was only 12:30 on a Sunday afternoon(!!!!!) Mike passed.  It’s pretty sad to think that there are actually people who probably don’t.  Seriously, though, 12:30.  On a Sunday.  Some Finns would tell you it’s not that they are looking for people who were just drinking on Sunday morning, it’s people who are still drunk from the night before.  I guess those people know how to party!  It’s just something we have to be very cognizant of while we are here.  If one of us has a drink, the other has to drive or is limited to only one drink.  I guess since I am the one pregnant, I get to be the designated driver for 20 more weeks, but man, will Mike owe me after that!!

Our destination was Fiskars Village.  You may be familiar with Fiskars already.  Anyone who has owned a pair of orange handled scissors has probably owned a pair of Fiskars.  They look like this:

 Fiskars Scissors - I can't remember a time when my Mom didn't own a pair of these!

Fiskars makes a lot of other products, and actually owns a number of other companies, as well. 

The village we visited was home of their original ironworks and is now a popular tourist attraction.  Some of the old buildings are set up as small museums to show how things were originally done, and some of the buildings are set up as craft shops.  There are also several restaurants.  Unfortunately, most of the museum buildings and shops are only open on a seasonal basis, so we were only able to see a few shops.  Everything is open June through September, and then again towards the end of November and December for holiday shopping.  We enjoyed browsing in the few shops that were open and we had a very nice lunch in the restaurant that was open.  We knew before we left home that most things would be closed, but still thought it would make for a nice afternoon, and it was.      

 Outside the restaurant at Fiskars Village.

The leaves here are definitely changing, but there aren’t nearly as many deciduous trees.  Many more evergreens and pines than leaf droppers.  Another big difference between Finland and Connecticut are the actual colors.  I did some research on this, so please bear with me!  In Europe, most of the leaves change to shades of yellow, while in North America, you get some yellow, but with a lot more red and orange mixed in.  Apparently, this is due to an evolutionary process that started 35 million years ago.  The red leaves ward off insects, which was needed in North America due to how the mountain ranges are situated (north and south, like the Rockies) and because the mountains in Europe (primarily the Alps) are on an east west axis, insects migrated in a different pattern and trees that couldn’t survive died and are no longer part of the various tree species.  Sorry for getting all science-y on you, this is the most science I have done in ages.  For more, and much better explained, info, click here to the short article I read.  To net it all out – red and orange leaves are really, really pretty and I really, really miss them.  We saw some, but very few.  

 Lots of yellow leaves.

After Fiskars Village, we drove a few more kilometers to a town on the sea (that’s what everyone here calls the water that is along the coast, technically, it’s the Baltic Sea, so I guess that makes sense!  I’m just used to calling it “the ocean”!).  In Raasepori, the sun was out and it was a beautiful afternoon.  Nothing was open, which I think is a combination of two things – it’s a little seaside town that is quite a popular destination in summer, the rest of the year not so much, and it was a Sunday.  Outside of Helsinki, and maybe the other bigger cities, most places do not open on Sundays.  In fact, that just changed in Helsinki in the last few months.  The laws are similar to the “blue laws” you see on the east coast of the US and govern when places are open and when certain things (like booze) can be sold.  We’ll definitely have to go back to Raasepori next summer and check it out.  

 Raasepori on a beautiful fall afternoon.  Notice the leaves in the background, lots of yellows.

After that, we headed home and had a pretty drive.  The sun was out most of the way and as we headed into Helsinki, it started to rain, but still sunny in places, though.  That meant rainbows.  2 of them.  A double rainbow.  I have seen more rainbows here in the last 6 weeks than I probably have in the last 6 years.  Kind of cool.

Monday, October 11, 2010

We're having a baby . . .

And that's all we know.  We hoped to find out the Sprout's gender today, but apparently, the Sprout didn't feel like sharing.  No sign of any boy parts, but our doctor said this is not a reason to go out and buy pink things or tell everyone we're having a girl, it just means she didn't see any parts.  We'll try again in a month.

Today was my first appointment with my neouvola.  You may recall from my prior post about my first doctor appointment that a neovula is a nurse midwife and provides a majority of the pre-natal care in the public health setting.  My appointment lasted about an hour and fifteen minutes while we reviewed all of my previous medical records and she took my vitals. 

I spoke to my neovula last week to make the appointment.  Neovulas do their own scheduling and you can only call them between 12:00 and 1:00.  If you miss the 12:00 - 1:00 window, call back tomorrow.  If the phone is busy when you call, hang up and call back.  We spoke for a few minutes and her English is pretty good.  I was most impressed that today she had printed a lot of materials specifically for me in English.  The materials were related to the foods I should not eat, a hospital tour we can take in English, and other pregnancy related info.  I think it says a lot that she took the time to do all of that.

The next part of this post contains some info that anyone who has ever been pregnant can relate to.  For everyone else, it may be more info than you want to know, in general, or about me!  Proceed with caution!  

The part that I find the most odd, and a bit disconcerting is that for each visit, I will be responsible for doing the following and then giving her the results at the beginning of the appointment.  1) Weighing myself -- OK, I can handle that, it's in kilograms, but I can read numbers!  2)  Taking my own blood pressure -- OK, I guess I can use that arm machine, too, but still not as comfortable with that as I am with a scale.  And considering today when she did it, the first time she got an error message, this does not increase my confidence level!  3)  Taking, and more importantly reading, my own urine test -- Put the little stick in the cup and if the boxes are this color, then it's normal, if they are that color, or that color, or that other color, then it isn't.  If the test results aren't normal, put your name on the little cup and leave it sit there (with the other little cups that don't have lids - ewww!!) and go get her. 

I do all of the above in the bathroom at the center and write it on a sticky note.  Really, a sticky note?  I would think at least there would be a form, but nope, a sticky note.  Today she had me do the urine test, but told me don't worry about the results because she was going to lunch and since she is sending me to the hospital tomorrow for a bigger set of lab work, we'd just wait to see what those said.  Of course, the little box wasn't the color it was supposed to be.  Sigh.  Guess I'll wait til tomorrow to take the test again.  The test I am having to take tomorrow - syphilis.  Again, really, syphilis?  They test every pregnant woman in Finland for Hep B, HIV (pronounced "hive" as in bee "hive") and syphilis.  In the US, I think Hep B and HIV are standard and of course, my results for those were negative.  But, since I haven't been tested for "the syph", I have to go get tested for it, and since I am there, let's test for the other two again while we are at it! 

And then the urine test . . . I was sent home with a specimen cup, a small plastic syringe, two vials and paper instructions.  You have heard of do it yourself pregnancy test, this is do it yourself urine test.  And instruction number one, you have to wait between 4 - 6 hours since you last urinated.  A pregnant lady waiting 4 - 6 hours?  Are you kidding me??!!  That is a challenge in and of itself. 

So, tomorrow will prove to be another exciting day.  Drive Mike to the office, drive home (second time solo driving), take test (do not screw up test as I have only one test kit), get self and urine specimens to hospital where the lab is (do you drive with urine specimens and hope to not spill?  Do you take urine specimens on the bus? -- ewww!!!), and get self to work (drive).  And oh yeah, it's supposed to rain.

Welcome to healthcare in the public system, and the not so glamorous side of pregnancy!          

Friday, October 8, 2010

Elixia - Our New Gym

Mike and I have joined the gym.  For the last 3 years or so, we have been very good about going to the gym and working out with our personal trainers, Ray and George at The Training Floor (hi, guys!).  We both think we are in the best shape of our lives, or for Mike, at least on par when he was playing football in high school and college. 

We have really missed being in the habit for the last few months and decided to get back at it.  We got a few referrals from other folk we have met here and I went out and did some recon.  Gyms here are pretty similar to home, but usually a lot smaller.  There are a couple of chains and a lot more smaller, independent gyms.

A new gym opened by our apartment in April, and we had both heard about it independently, so we decided to check it out.  It is called Elixia and it is the closest thing we found to our big gym in Stamford.  It has two levels of space, a variety of classes, and lots of cardio machines.  The best thing is, it’s practically empty.  How I looooove having my own gym!  We went on both Saturday and Sunday and at what we thought were pretty peak times and there were maybe 2 or 3 other people using the cardio equipment at the same time as us. 

There are five TVs that you can watch while you work out.  One of the best things in Finland is the amount of American TV we get.  I was able to watch 3 episodes of “Friends” back-to-back on Sunday while I worked out.  I am sure I saw these episodes back in the ‘90s when they aired at home, but it has been so long they were practically new to me!  Mike got a kick out of how much I was laughing out loud watching them.

We have our first personal training sessions this Thursday.  They train only during the week, so we do miss being able to do that on Saturday mornings.  I think it will make it difficult to get two sessions in a week by just doing it in the evening.  We’ll see how that goes.  There are also a lot of different classes you can take, everything from spinning to Zumba.  And the Finns looooove their Zumba!

We’re glad to have found Elixia and hope we can make it as much part of our routine as Planet Fitness and The Training Floor were in Stamford.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Big Day at IBM Finland

As some of you may have noticed, I have not mentioned much about working at IBM Finland.  Though I do mention in my sidebar that I will share my experiences working in Finland, I want to be careful about talking too much about my employer.  IBM does encourages social networking and lots of colleagues have blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts, but working in HR, I think it is better if I only share general, topical thoughts.  And of course, none of those general thoughts necessarily reflect those of my employer!

Monday was a big day at IBM Finland, though, so I have to share!  At least it was for me.  As I went to the cafeteria for lunch with a few of my colleagues (that’s what all people in Finland who work together call each other – they are “colleagues”, not “co-workers”, not “associates”, nothing else – they all refer to each other as “colleagues.”  From Nokia, to IBM, to the grocery store, to the restaurants.  They are all “colleagues,” but I digress . . .)

As we were walking to the cafeteria, one colleague asked me if I had noticed the American flag outside.  Granted, I walked right by it in the morning and didn’t notice, but sure enough, on the four flag poles where there are usually four Finnish flags, there were three Finnish flags and one American flag.  What a sight for sore eyes!   

Outside the IBM Finland office
The American Ambassador to Finland was visiting IBM and in his honor, they were flying the flag.  Our Ambassador here is a bit of a local celebrity.  His name is Bruce Oreck, and he is of the Oreck Vacuum family.  He has been here since August of last year and has made quite the name for himself.  The Finns really seem to enjoy him.  I think part of it is he doesn’t seem to come across as a typical ambassador.  At least, when I picture an Ambassador, I don’t picture someone who looks like this:

The Ambassador is the one holding the bees (with the gold hoop earring)
Photo courtesy of the US State Department
I think he looks like Mr. Clean, so quite appropriate that he is from a vacuum business family!  He apparently has varied interests including a vast knowledge of minerals, he’s a body builder, and he’s into beekeeping.  Apparently, he has one of the largest private mineral collections in the U.S.  He has also introduced beekeeping to the Embassy here and they make honey and candles.  I am lucky enough to be going to an event at the Embassy in a few weeks, so I will report back if I see any evidence of the minerals, or the bees!

As I am known to do if there is a potential celebrity sighting on the horizon, I will loiter.  So, loiter in the IBM lobby I did.  I didn’t have to wait long before I saw Ambassador Oreck.  He was with IBM Finland’s head executive, so not really appropriate for me to go and introduce myself, but I did follow them for a short walk to the auditorium ;-)  Not sure when my next celebrity sighting will be, so I had to take advantage.

In looking for a photo of the Ambassador, I came across his blog.  If you are interested in reading about what he does while in Finland, you can read more about it here.  I found it to be quite interesting and informative.  He’s definitely leading a more exciting life in Finland than we are, but I did find some Finland travel destination ideas!

More to come about the Ambassador and the Embassy in a few weeks . . .