Pirate Beach, and Other Foibles of the Expat Life

a photo of the beach
This is Helsinki, but it's not real life...
When I went to live in France as a student in 1996, I had the choice of living on the International floor in the dorms, living with a host family, or living in an apartment with French students. At a time when I was particularly interested in asserting my independence, but still keen to immerse myself in French culture, I chose to live in an apartment. It was an amazing experience, not just because my roommates were quirky, artsy types who did things like going about their business in the apartment communicating only by pantomime or bundling me off to a French improvisational theater where they performed (best thing that ever happened to my abilities with the French language!), but because I was absolutely thrown into French life with only sporadic emails or even more infrequent phone calls to root me to my home and family back in the United States.

I expected an easier transition when we went to England in 2001, in part because my favorite partner-in-crime was in tow, in part because of the lack of language barrier. For a variety of reasons, September 11 and a much longer stay among them, it was much more difficult than my time in France. It was almost like the hint of familiarity brought the differences into sharper focus.

I have to admit that I had very little idea what to expect when moving to Finland with the children. Read more

When the Comforts of Home Run Out

photo of a 40 foot shipping container
This 40' container bound for Helsinki contained all of our wordly possessions...
The kids and I arrived in Finland nine months ago almost to the day. Nine and a half months ago, then, we packed everything we owned into a 40′ shipping container and sent it off on a long journey via train, boat, and truck to our new home in Helsinki. We had decluttered enough of our crap possessions to know that we’d have some extra room in the shipping container, so we had the luxury of stocking up a bit on comforts from home that would either be hard-to-find or expensive in our new locale.

Now that some of those Costco-sized bulk purchases have begun to run out, I find myself reflecting on that shipment, on the things we chose to bring, and on what I’ll soon be doing without. Read more

On the road again…

a photograph of our new car
How's that for a parallel-parking job, eh?

When we moved to Finland last fall, we made a conscious decision to live in city-center and rely on public transport. This seemed reasonable for several reasons: Gabriel’s school is just a few kilometers away, we live right by a tram stop, and we were heading into icy winter driving conditions. I congratulated myself for making such an environmentally-sound decision, got my bus pass, and was off! And I was happy that I never had to search for scarce parking around the school each morning, or on our street each evening. I didn’t envy the folks who were digging their cars out of the record snow we had this winter. I was glad, even, when it was the taxi-driver, and not myself, who was sliding around icy corners.

But as the cold months wore on, to be followed by a rainy/blustery spring, I started to realize a few things. First, I totally missed out on some great cross-country skiing expeditions in Espoo (the city across the bay from Helsinki where Matt works and where many of the expats in our community live). Likewise, the kids missed out on some play dates because while it’s easy to get around Helsinki using public transport, it is less easy to get around Espoo or to get between Helsinki & Espoo. Last-minute trips were more difficult on the weekends because there were train schedules to consider. And did I mention how much schlepping groceries in -25C temperatures sucks? Read more

Back to School!

A photo of Gabriel's first day of kindergarten, 2010
Gabriel's first day of kindergarten in Colorado, August 2010

I’ve never been one of those moms who cried at milestones. I’ve looked forward to the first solid food, the first steps, the first loose tooth, and even the first day of school. It’s hard not to be excited when your kids are absolutely desperate to escape you and each otherover the moon at the thought of seeing their friends after nearly two months of traveling.

But something’s just a bit different this year. Not only are we 6,000 miles away from where this picture was taken on Gabriel’s first day of kindergarten in Colorado last year, but this year, Lily starts school too. That’s right. As of 8:45 this morning, I’m sort of an empty-nester. The International School doesn’t have a half day option for kindergarten, so Lily will be joining Gabriel at school five full days per week. Besides catching up on the 800 blog posts I’ve been meaning to write about our amazing summer, I’m a bit at loose ends. Maybe it’s because the kids have been with me pretty much around the clock since early June. Maybe it’s because it seems impossible to me that my baby is actually a five year old who managed to lose her first tooth and teach herself to read this summer. And did I mention that’s she’s grown? Read more

Experiencing the Midnight Sun

Six months ago, in the depths of my first Finnish winter, I wrote about my experiences with Light Therapy and  Seasonal Affective Disorder. At the time, with the sun barely rising above the horizon mid-day, I couldn’t imagine the same landscape with the reverse effect. Today, with the days charging toward 19 hours of daylight, I see how people survive the long dark: they dream of June. Read more

Demystifying Finnish Flour *Updated*

I like to bake. People have been known to covet my pie and my pancakes have garnered acclaim on two continents. And then there’s my bread and my pizza dough. I mean, when it comes to baking, I know what I’m doing, right? I have conquered high-altitude baking. I unraveled the mysteries of British flour from strong to self-rising. And yet, after seven months, I’m just starting to figure out Finnish flour, and doing a lot more research on it than I was expecting! Oh yeah, and here I am four months later revising it again to include even more info!! Read more

Tallinn with Children

photo of the medieval wall around Tallinn, Estonia
A tower and part of the medieval wall that surrounds Vana Tallinn.

About 80km across the Gulf of Finland lies an interesting counterpoint to Helsinki: Tallinn, Estonia. A country that emerged from behind the Iron Curtain only 20 short years ago, Estonia has done much to modernize without losing site of its long history. A major shipping port for hundreds of years (Helsinki was originally founded by the Swedish monarchy to attempt to compete with Tallinn’s power and wealth), Tallinn still boasts a major harbor and medieval ramparts that are amazingly well-preserved considering its turbulent history.

In 2011, Tallinn was one of three European Capitals of Culture along with Turku and Sarajevo, and the economic vitality that the title brings is evident both in the hoards of tourists leaving the hourly boats from Helsinki and the flourishing artisans selling their wares from within the ancient walls of the old city. Hand-knit woolen goods, carved wooden bowls, plates, and utensils, and amber jewelry are plentiful and there are good bargains to be had, especially if you’re used to Helsinki prices. And although many from Helsinki venture to Tallinn to take advantage of the much lower taxes on alcohol, there are many other reasons to visit Tallinn with children.

The gates into Vana Tallinn
You can see the gates into Old Tallinn from the Sokos Viru

We stayed at the Sokos Viru, which is right outside the gates of old Tallinn, making it a perfect jumping-off point for exploring the city. However, we were unable to take advantage of one of the 40 “family rooms” they advertise on their web site, which left the kids rather crammed in to two roll-away beds. Whether this was because I booked through the Tallink web site when I booked our boat fares, or whether there just weren’t any available was not entirely clear to me. Affordable, clean, and full of amenities (nice buffet breakfast, sauna, play room for the children with nearby bar, restaurants, and even a night club), this hotel was a good choice for our family.

Although a day-trip like the one we did when we first visited Tallinn in January is certainly an option if you’re traveling from Helsinki, you could easily spend several days exploring the old walled city and its several excellent historical museums. The Tallinn City Museum, Kiek in de Kok, and St. Nicolas’s church in particular are worth seeing for the historical light they shine on an area about which many English-speakers know little. Note that many museums are closed on Monday, and some are closed Tuesday as well.

Tallinn sky line in January
Don’t let the snow and the slate-gray sky detour you–Tallinn is marvelous during the Christmas Market!

Little warriors are likely to love the ramparts, arrow slots, and goofy dragon-themed water spouts that sprinkle the city, while little princesses should enjoy the many artisans, shopkeepers and barmaids who sport period costumes during the tourist season.

A steady supply of interesting things to watch, from archery lessons in upper Old Town to groups of tourists traveling by Segway, to the bicycle taxis that buzz through the narrow streets, can entertain children who might otherwise get antsy as their parents ogle the architectural sights in Tallinn. If they get restless waiting for food at one of the many restaurants around the Town Square, there is, just like in Helsinki, ice-cream on just about every corner to bribe entertain them.

The Tallinn Official Sightseeing Tour offers a short 2.5 hour tour of the major sites in the city without being too unreasonably long for children. If any sort of guided tour is out of the question with your children, there is an iPod Tour of Tallinn available for a fee.

St. Catherine's Passage
St. Catherine’s Passage retains its medieval feel all year long.

Whether you choose a tour or head out on your own, be sure to wander through St. Catherine’s Passage and some of the other winding medieval streets that snake through old town. You can almost imagine narrow carts navigating the cobblestones and will marvel that any car attempts to drive in old town! As you wander all the market stalls that line the inside of the walls around the Viru gates, look for arrow slots and for one of the many funky drain-spouts that have survived and captured a bit of medieval fancy.

Along with the drain spouts, many artisans have funky wrought-iron signs marking their shop-fronts, and I found fun Art-Nouveau buildings interspersed with much older fare more than once. As a spinner and knitter, I have to point out that Tallinn is a woolen paradise. Not only can you cull project ideas from all the amazing lacework, but there’s plenty of fleece and yarn available to build up your stash, at prices that seemed amazing to me after my time stalking the Novita shop in Helsinki!

picture of medieval rain spout
Many of the rain spouts in Tallinn take on fanciful shapes.

Although each church of the major churches in Old Town Tallinn offers something interesting, Alexander Nevsky is the must-see for it’s amazing onion-topped towers and all-around difference from the cathedrals of Western Europe. But be aware that this cathedral is interesting for its history as well; it was built in the 19th century as part of an unpopular attempt by the Russian Empire to bend the Tallinn skyline to its will in the same way it had done its people. Its careful restoration after Estonia won independence in 1991 has, perhaps, made it a symbol of beauty emerging from turbulence, which seems like a good motif for Tallinn.

Nevsky Cathedral
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Turku with Children

Turun tuomiokirkko (Turku Cathedral)
Turun tuomiokirkko (Turku Cathedral) is the center for Finland's Evangelical Lutheran Church.

When we announced that we were moving to Helsinki, we got quite a variety of reactions, one of which, sadly, was “Where?” Admittedly, Finland is not a typical vacation destination for Americans, but that’s a shame considering all it has to offer. Likewise, stopping off in Helsinki for a day on the way somewhere else–which is common practice for tourists who pass through here–means missing out on one of the gems of Finland: Turku.

Turku was Finland’s capital city from its founding in the 13th century until Russia decided to move the capital east to its present location in Helsinki in 1812. As such, it contains much of the medieval history of Finland that is absent from much-newer Helsinki. Situated on the coast at the outlet of the Aura River, it is accessible by the boats that travel between Helsinki and Stockholm and a short & scenic 2-hour train ride from Helsinki. The small scale of the city, as well as the abundance of parks and green-space, makes it easy to explore Turku with children on foot.

The immense tower of the Turun tuomiokirkko (Turku Cathedral) dominates the center of town and both the interior and exterior of the church tell of the long history of the cathedral and the city itself. Started in the 13th century, and rebuilt multiple times during fires, the cathedral sustained significant damage in the Great Fire of 1827, which destroyed most of Turku’s town center. This allowed German architect Carl Engel, already famous for his work on Helsinki’s Cathedral and Senate buildings, to participate in the reconstruction by designing the high alter and the pulpit of the newly-remodeled interior in the mid 1800s, and necessitated the reconstruction of the church tower. Over a period of years, the tower was rebuilt to 101 meters above sea level, making it visible from quite a distance and reinforcing its importance to Finland and to its Evangelical Lutheran Church. Read more

Lily’s Birthday is on Mother’s Day…

Lily's first bath at home a few days after her birth...

Tomorrow, my “baby” girl will be five years old. Five years since my father told me I needed to hurry up and have this baby because his flight home was booked for only a few days after the conversation.

Five years since I squatted down to pick some asparagus on May 7 after days of on-again, off-again labor, only to stand up and say emphatically, “time to go to the hospital!” Five years since I became a mother of two.


A lot has happened in those five years. Read more

No Buns for Jesus

Misunderstandings are a part of expat life. Language barriers, cultural differences, and a desire to attribute meaning when sometimes there is none–all of these are experienced on a regular basis. Such was the case when I posted the following in my post, Easter in Finland:

Of course, it wouldn’t be a holiday in Finland without it’s own special pastry or bun, and Easter is no exception. These buns are like an elephant ear–crispy and covered with powdered sugar. They’re our least favorite so far, especially since they’re competing with the yummy raspberry jam in the Runbergintartut (in celebration of the birth of Finland’s most famous poet) and the cream filling of the Mardi Gras pastry (Laskia pulla). Once we complete our first year here, I’ll have to report back on the highlights of this year of pastries!

I should have been suspicious when I couldn’t locate the Finnish name for this delicious little sweetie Read more