Where do stories come from?

The cover of Mauri Kunnas' <em>The Canine Kalevala</em> In 2010, my husband, two preschool-aged kids, and I packed up our house and our geriatric cat and moved from Colorado to Helsinki, Finland. Not long after we arrived, a colleague of my husband’s brought my children a copy of Mauri Kunnas’ The Canine Kalevala. She explained that The Kalevala was a very old epic poem about the creation of the world, and, more specifically, Finland.

Having always been a mythology geek, I looked up the full version of the poem (in translation, since my Finnish never quite progressed from ordering off a menu, buying bus tickets, and very basic conversational small-talk). I read in the introduction that The Kalevala was one of Tolkien’s influences as he created Middle Earth and right then I knew I had to write a story about it.

But shiny new story ideas catch my eye like tinfoil attracts a crow, so I ended up writing another novel before I finally came back to The Kalevala in late summer, 2014. And my inspiration for the two heroes of my story, siblings Kai and Freya, had nothing to do with Finland or magic or obscure epic poems. In fact, Kai and Freya were originally Henry and Lauren Rollins, because what led me to their family was a “what if?” question: What would happen if a guy obsessed with Henry Rollins (of Black Flag and spoken word fame) named his son after his hero? Although I’ve expunged every kooky Black Flag reference from the manuscript (because, come on, I write for kids and most adults don’t even know who Henry Rollins is), Kai and Freya’s Dad still hangs on to the punk rock glory days of his youth and I always picture him in a faded band tee.

Kai and Freya’s dynamic, which is central to the plot of the story, is based on my little brother and I, who are great friends now, but who tortured each other regularly when we were Kai and Freya’s age. Unlike my main characters, my own kids are best pals and filled with horror at the idea that one of the more violent moments of the book–a vicious fight between the siblings–is based on something that really happened between my brother and I thirty years ago.

We returned to the United States in December 2014, just as I was finishing up my first draft of QUEST FOR THE KALEVALA. So I like to think of my story as a love letter to a country we happily called home for just over four years. Some of my favorite haunts, from Cafe Tintin to the children’s international school, to gorgeous Lapland in the far north, have roles to play in the story, and through it all, I’ve woven in details from The Kalevala in hopes that kids and adults alike will move beyond the ever-popular Norse and Egyptian mythology to read what Finns had to say about magic, creation, and the songs of power.

If you’d like to read more origin stories from the amazing writers participating in Pitch Wars 2015, visit Vanessa Barger’s blog.

A Foodie’s Dream Day Out

raw ingredients
The raw ingredients for our Emo Cooking Class

One of my favorite traditions in our expat community is the PTO’s Cooking Club. About once a month, someone invites a group of ladies over to their house and shows them how to cook a meal from their home country. In my time here, I’ve attended Japanese, Russian, Korean, Hungarian, Polish, French, Indian, and German cooking classes and have co-hosted three consecutive Thanksgiving cooking clubs.

This month, the cooking club did something a little different. This time, our cooking club was hosted by one of Helsinki’s hot new restaurants Gastrobar Emo. Owned by the same folks as Michelin-starred Olo, Emo adds a dash of European flavor to its reasonably-priced menu, earning it a Michelin Bib Gourmand.

I love eating gorgeous food. But I love learning to cook it myself even more. Especially when Matt, my favorite sous-chef (ha ha!), is by my side and there’s a glass of sparkling wine in my hand. Oh yeah, did I mention that a sommelier came with the class? How can I order one of those for home use?

On the menu for the three course lunch and cooking class were two things that I still struggle with in the kitchen: scallops and venison. Both notoriously easy to overcook, I looked forward to expert advice and I wasn’t disappointed. We seared half the scallops and marinated the others in a bit of lemon juice ceviche-style. Served with hand-whisked dill mayo and pickled cucumbers and radishes, it was divine. Read more

A Morning with Tove Jansson

Photo of Tove Jansson
Visit the Tove Jansson exhibit from now through 7 September at the Ateneum Museum in Helsinki.

As much as I may dream of spending a morning with beloved Finnish author and painter Tove Jansson in the flesh, a morning at Helsinki’s Ateneum Art Museum visiting the Tove Jansson exhibit still thrilled this Moomin fan. The exhibit celebrates the 100th anniversary of Jansson’s birth and demands a visit if you are in the Helsinki area in the next six months.

Tove Jansson created the iconic children’s fantasy world of Moominvalley and populated it with strange and wondrous imaginary creatures in tales published both as books and comic strips. The principal characters of this world, rounded white-bodied trolls called the Moomins (or muumi in Finnish), go on adventures with an unusual assortment of friends through a world that seems a lot like Finland–full of forest, seas, and sweeping valleys. Released as World War II came to an end, I imagine the child-like innocence of the characters as well at Jansson’s fanciful drawings appealed to many people who had known nothing but deprivation during the war. Read more

My Finland Bucket List

1962585_10152254624693469_1410410709_nWe tend to move about every three years, so when we celebrated three years of life in Finland this fall, I inevitably started to feel the itch. If you’re an expat, you know what I’m talking about. I love Finland, but I’m also that person who could move every three years for the rest of her life and still not get to every place on my list. Because, you know, I’ve only lived on two continents, and I want to travel more in Asia and South America, and, and, and…

Anyhow, since the practicalities of life as a corporate expat mean that I have no idea where or when we’re moving on, I started to work on a different kind of list: my Finland Bucket List. It’s amazing that you can live somewhere for three years without doing all those things that are typically Finnish. But life happens, especially life with young children, and at some point you realize that you’ve got a lot of things to do before you move on.

No one who knows me is surprised to learn that I have done well in this category. In fact, I’ve tried forty of the 42 traditional Finnish foods on this list.

Read more

After Hiraeth

hireathWhen The Displaced Nation shared this word from This Page is About Words today, it resonated. Like kummerspeck (grief bacon), it’s a word that should exist in the English language, or at least in the expat language.

What I love about this word, hiraeth, is that it sums up what for me is both the greatest joy and the keenest sorrow of the expat life: the fact that each place you live becomes a part of you (the joy) and each place you leave keeps a little piece of your heart (the sorrow). All those transitions, over a decade or more of moving around, create a very complicated form of nostalgia that I will now refer to as hiraeth.

And expats spend a lot of time talking about transitions, by the way. But transitions in the expat life go well beyond getting used to a new location. What about the transition when your first good friend, the one who bought you your first cup of coffee in a new location, herself moves on to a new post? Or the exodus that happens each December, because corporate calendars aren’t always aligned to the school year?

As if the goodbyes this past December weren’t hard enough Read more

A Cold Dip in the Sea

A double rainbow from our recent trip to Florida.
A double rainbow from our recent trip to Florida.

I know it’s only week two of 2014, but I’ve already got a sunshine and rainbows sort of feeling about this year. It’s probably because, after a solid week of slate-gray skies and damp, the snow has returned to southern Finland and with it, the sun.

I know, I know, it’s Finland. In January. It’s still getting light at roughly 9am and is dark by the time I drag the kids out of school around 3:30. But in between those hours, for the last two days at least, there was real, bright, need-to-wear-sunglasses, sun! If you had told me in 2010, when I was sharing my First Impressions of Finland, that I would rejoice about the return of the sun in early January, I would have laughed in your face and told you that you should wait until March. Perhaps that means that four winters in Finland have addled my brain. Or maybe I’m just finally adjusted to the rhythm of life here in beautiful Suomi. Read more

Overcoming Inertia

Because lack of a pretty pictures is NOT a good reason to stop blogging for five months 😉

Inertia is a part of my writer-life. No matter how hard I try to banish it forever, I know it is lurking just out of sight, waiting to lull me into non-writing inactivity. So says the blogger who has been absent for a solid five months.

One part apology, one part explanation, I’ll share my thought processes here, get you all caught up to speed, and hopefully entertain you a bit on the way.

Five months ago, I was planning to take a small break from blogging simply because I was planning to move my family from Helsinki, Finland, to Ulm, Germany. We’d rented a house, purchased things for the house (a new bed for us, a lawn mower, wardrobe cabinets, a couple of chairs), we’d even moved all of Matt’s clothes AND our cat to the house. Oh yeah, and we’d moved Matt into the house.

I was buzzing along, purging loads of stuff from our flat in Helsinki. I felt so, so sad to leave my friends and my life here, but it was hard not to be excited about moving to southern Germany: More sunshine, closer to the mountains, closer to our beloved France.

However, as a huge believer in the power of my own intuition (typically referred to as those “gut feelings” I get that govern just about every decision in my life), something just didn’t seem right. I won’t say I knew we weren’t going to go–my goodness, we got so far as to cancel our Finnish social security, pay the deposit at the new school in Germany, and did I mention we moved the cat???–but I will say that I was only half surprised when I drove off from our flat for the last time, empty as it now was of all of our belongings, picked Matt up from work, and heard the words, “Well, we’re not moving to Germany.”

I’ll spare you the gory details, but we had a solid few days where we weren’t sure if he had a job and a few uncomfortable weeks after that where we knew he had a job, but weren’t sure how long it would last. Then, just over a month after the whole crazy thing began, we were unpacking our stuff into a new home in Finland (yes, at this point, Matt had already retrieved the cat!). Read more

You cant step in the same river twice

The kids' first Metro ride in Helsinki (October 2010). Some people spend a lifetime trying to see what my kids have seen in the past 16 months. One of the many things for which I am thankful.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, according to Plato, that you cannot step in the same river twice due to the constantly-changing nature of the river. It’s a pretty good metaphor for expat life, especially when that expat life involves moving every 2-4 years. I think I’ve mentioned before that I lived in the same general area of a not over-large suburb for the first 18 years of my life, so this constant moving thing does not come naturally to me.

But that’s not to say that I don’t embrace it. In fact, I’m starting to believe that it is the act of stepping into that river, and realizing that it’s different than it was last time, that keeps me moving forward, keeps me interested. And it’s a good thing, because even though we’ve only been in Helsinki 16 short months, we now know that in June we’ll be moving on.

This time, we’re headed to Ulm, Germany. Read more

There’s More to Lapland than Santa’s Village!

a photo of sunrise in Lapland
A sunrise fit for Santa himself!

One of the unexpected joys of living in Finland (and there are many) is Santa mania. According to This is Finland, Finns have been claiming that Santa lives in Finland since 1927. Reindeer, after all, can’t survive winter at the North Pole, but they can in Lapland! It follows that Santa’s Village, located in Rovaniemi right on the edge of the Arctic Circle, is a major tourist destination for those who decide to make a winter trek to Finland. Many families with children add a visit to Rovaniemi to their winter itinerary, taking the scenic overnight train north and visiting Santa, Mrs. Claus, and the elves. From what I’ve heard, it is pure magic for the children, and includes ample shopping and activities to keep adults entertained as well.

Read more

Day Trips from Helsinki – Porvoo

Waterfront with Porvoo Cathedral in the background

Heading east from Helsinki on the King’s Road (Kuninkaantie), you can reach the charming river-side town of Porvoo in under an hour. From May to September, you can also reach Porvoo by boator cruise there and take a bus back to Helsinki to save a little time (the boat ride is just over three hours, while the bus takes under 90 minutes).

One of several medieval towns in Finland, Porvoo was founded in the 14th century and many of the old wooden buildings and narrow cobblestone streets remain. Made famous (in Finland at least) by the paintings of Albert Edelfelt, it is a scenic town where many of the beautiful old buildings now house good restaurants and shops selling Finnish artisanal goods. Read more