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 . . .

Monday, October 4, 2010

Trip to Paris

One of the best things about living in Europe is the ability to travel and see Europe!  (funny how things work that way).  Mike had a business meeting two Fridays ago in Paris, and since it was my last week of “leisure” before retuning to work, we decided to make a weekend of it.  I am lucky enough to have been to Paris several times before and it is absolutely my favorite city in the world. 

After getting news that 50% of the flights to Paris were being canceled because of striking air traffic controllers, we made it on Thursday evening as planned.  Mike had a business dinner, so I was on my own.  We were staying at a hotel pretty far out, and as the taxi drivers were also striking, I ended up eating in an Italian restaurant very near the hotel.  It was about the worst Italian food I have had.  Oh well.

Our hotel that night was called the Evergreen Laurel.  The reviews on Trip Advisor were pretty dismal and I wasn’t impressed.  Interesting enough though, it reminded me of home.  And when I say “home”, I mean Casa Grande, Arizona.  The hotel is owned by the Evergreen Group in Taiwan.  Apparently, they are quite the conglomerate and have a number of varied businesses, including hotels, airlines (EVA Air, as well as a cargo line), shipping, etc.  They also have an airfield in Marana, AZ between Casa Grande and Tucson.  I have been to that airfield a couple of times and I had no idea the company did so many other things.  The hotel catered to Asian clients and I think the funniest thing was the guy at the front desk was named Brian and he was from Boston.  He told me he was hired because his English was so good and it was easier for him to communicate with the Asian clients than the Parisians who spoke English.  Either way, I was glad he was there because it was easier for me to communicate with him, too!

On Friday, while Mike was in meetings, I had a day on my own in Paris.  I spent some time in both the morning and the afternoon sitting in the Jardin des Tuileries.  The sun repeatedly stuck its head out and it was so nice to see.  For the majority of my time in Helsinki, it has been pretty cloudy, rainy and dreary.  I had lunch at one of my favorite places that are actually in the US, too, Le Pain Quotidien.  There is something to be said for going into a restaurant and knowing the menu and getting what you want/expect.  I do miss that.  I then went to the Musee de l’orangerie.  This museum has a number of Claude Monet Water Lily paintings.  A few things I learned about the Water Lilies – it’s a series of more than 250 paintings and many of them are quite large.  I saw four that were 36 feet in length.  I guess when I have seen them before, they were either the smaller versions, or I just do not have a good memory of what I have seen in the past.  Either way, I was very struck by the size and don’t think I’ll forget now!    
 Claude Monet - Water Lily (Sunset)
After my day on my own, I met Mike at our new hotel.  Side note – we booked a hotel for the first time through Hotwire.  Hotwire is one of those sites where you pay for the hotel room before you know the name of the hotel.  I was a bit leery, as I am pretty particular about hotels, but went for it anyway because everything I was looking at was so expensive.  We got a smoking deal for the Westin Vendome right by the Louvre.  I will definitely use Hotwire again!   

We rode the Bateaux Mouches up and down the Seine at sunset and then walked to one of my favorite restaurants, Relais l’Entrecote, for dinner.  There is no menu at l’ Entrecote.  Everyone has a salad with a mustard vinaigrette, steak and French fries.  You can pick your dessert.  It is sooooo good.  And for those of you in the tri-state area, one opened in NYC last year and I highly suggest you try it!

View from the Bateaux Mouches (with slight technical difficulties!)

On Saturday, we had Starbucks for breakfast.  Though Finns drink more coffee per capita than anyone in the world, they don’t have Starbucks.  And for that matter, it’s very hard to even find decaffeinated coffee.  Kinda makes it difficult for a pregnant girl to get a cup of joe.  When I was in Paris in the summer of 2004, there were four Starbucks in the entire city.  Today there are 46!  I think the Parisians could do with 45 and the Helsinkians could have one!  After breakfast, we went to the Musee d’ Orsay.  This museum is known for its collection of Impressionist paintings and is in an old restored train station.  The building is absolutely gorgeous, just incredible.  Unfortunately, it is currently being renovated and many of the works of art are in make shift locations.  Additionally, 54 Monet works are at a special exhibit at the Palais Royal, so we did not get to see them.  We took an English language tour of the museum and had a wonderfully knowledgeable guide from the museum whom we quite enjoyed.  We had a nice lunch at the museum and added it to our list of museum restaurants where we have had a good meal.

Mike had planned our Saturday evening well in advance and as surprise for me.  We had tickets to the Moulin Rouge!  A car picked us up at the hotel and took us to the theater.  We had dinner before the show and sat at a table with several other couples.  We enjoyed talking to an older couple from New Zealand and a young couple from Leeds, UK.  The show was so much fun to watch.  Moulin Rouge is home of the cabaret and it was so neat to see it where it originated.  The dancers were fabulous and the acts in between the show numbers were also quite good.  We really enjoyed a ventriloquist who did some audience participation and a girl who swam in a pool with snakes, big snakes!  It was quite an evening and we had so much fun!

 The Moulin Rouge (with more technical difficulties!)
On Sunday, we had breakfast at a little café near the hotel before heading out to an art fair.  It wasn’t quite what I expected based on what I had read in the guide book, but we enjoyed ourselves nonetheless.  As we were walking back to the hotel, we decided we would have lunch at l’ Entrecote.  We knew it was a bit silly to go to the same place twice in one weekend, but we decided it was worth it.  We haven’t found restaurants in Helsinki yet that we love, so we decided we should take advantage of being in a place with one that we do.  Lunch was as good as dinner two days before.  As we left the restaurant, it started to sprinkle, then rain, and we walked quickly back to the hotel.  We were lucky to be able to walk through parts of the grounds of the Louvre that are covered, and then get on streets that under colonnades and we stayed pretty dry.  We collected our bags and hopped in a taxi to the airport.  What a wonderful weekend!