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.