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.

Repatriating Expats

Seattle world fair stamp
Expat life is full of Big Questions. When do you go? When do the kids & I follow? Where will we live? How do we enroll the kids in school? Who is going to pay for/schedule/plan which pieces of this craziness? Am I going to go nuts in the process?

From these questions, you can probably tell that another move is on our horizon. Next month, we’re moving to the Redmond, Washington (Greater Seattle) area so that my husband can continue his job with Microsoft. Despite being asked regularly if we’re excited to “go home,” this is new territory for us. Sure, we’re American, and we are lucky enough to have both friends and (for the first time in the kids’ lives!) family in the area. But I’ve never even been to Redmond. Or Bellevue. Or Sammamish. Which, according to our very helpful realtor, are the best housing options if we want to avoid giving Matt a hellish commute in a traffic-laden urban area.

I’d be lying if I said that I’m not ready to leave Finland after four years. Did I mention how dark and dreary it is at this time of year, a time of year that I have now experienced FIVE times? But saying goodbye to friends is hard for the children and for us. In typical expat fashion, Matt needs to be in the US now to do his job, so that means much of the next six weeks of insanity will be navigated as a solo parent. Whee!

The kids don’t really remember living in the US before, so most of their memories come from this past summer. Considering that I packed in as many activities (summer camp! theme parks! mountain climbing! boat rides! beach time!) and as much cousin/grandma time as I could, they’ve got a fairly positive attitude about the move. Oh, and I might have promised them kittens too, just to keep them out of therapy sweeten the deal.

Despite the bribery carefully-managed expectations, the kids are still nervous. Gabriel asked me about first impressions on the way to school yesterday, spurring a long conversation about how first impressions when you start a new school are totally different than first impressions that you make at a one-time event like a job interview or performance. Yes, my heart squeezed big time as we had that conversation. My mellow little man may not be saying much, but he’s definitely processing.

Even as I madly declutter, organize, stalk real-estate web sites, book a 10-hour time difference house-hunting trip, and research schools, we’ll spend as much of the next six weeks as we can just hanging with friends and making just a few more memories before we go. In the meantime, if it’s a little quiet around here, you’ll know why.

Pack List for Vacation Rentals


a photo of our vacation pack list
Packing these items makes life in a rental house or apartment so much easier!

Tomorrow we leave for Croatia and with the weather here holding at 8C and rainy, the 24s forecast for the Dalmatian Coast cannot come fast enough. Brrrrrrrr. *Snuggles down into comfy chair with pot of tea for the day*

Today I’m packing for our trip and realized that after four years of vacations spent primarily in rented apartments and homes throughout Europe, we’ve got packing experience worth sharing. I’m not talking about clothes or shoes, because that varies so much based on where you’re going and when. I’m talking about a handful of household items that we’ve learned through experience can make life in a rental so much easier.

These items may not be necessary if you’re staying in a major metropolitan area with a mega-store right down the way, or if you’re hoteling it, but if you’re staying in out of the way places, or traveling without a car, both of which are the norm for us, this pack list for vacation rentals can make a huge difference. 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

And so I said goodbye to the red dress

Man, I still remember how gorgeous I felt in that red dress!

By the time I’ve said the words, “Do you think I should get rid of this?” I already know the answer: Yes! Sometimes, though, I need a little push and that’s why I ask for it (my friends and husband usually deliver!). After decluttering my books once again over the weekend (always a painful process for this bibliophile) and then helping a friend begin the process of digitizing her filing system, I should have been more prepared than I was for the realization that it was time to let go of some of the dresses that have been haunting my closet for a decade or more.

If you’re on the minimalist bandwagon already, you know why the dresses have to go (if I haven’t worn them in 10 years or more, I’m unlikely to do so). Even if you’re not, you can probably agree that moving the dresses (which have already been moved to England, then back to Colorado, then to Finland) on to Germany next month is really a waste of space and resources.

As usual, I couldn’t just put the dresses in the ever-growing purge pile and be done with it; I had to ruminate. What I realized is that I’ve been hanging on to those dresses not because I ever hope to wear them again (let’s face it up-front–the post-baby tatas will never again gracefully fill a size 6 dress), but because they represent a time in my life when I was young and carefree, a time when I felt more like a sexy vixen and less like, well, the VP of the PTO.

Then I realized what I need isn’t a thing (the dress), but a feeling (I’m gorgeous!). While I was ruminating, Matt very sweetly offered to buy me “Red Dress 2.0.” I can’t say that I need another red dress, but the offer did give me the courage I needed to toss it, and its brethren, into the pile.

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